Tom is…. (facebook and my generation)

Tommywood is … Tom is … on Facebook. Aren’t you? If you read this column online and are not on Facebook, you will soon be.

The Facebook wave has now washed over my generation, the “late baby boomers.” In the last two months, the number of people in my crowd who have just joined or who joined a while ago but are now suddenly really using the social network is exploding exponentially.

Why? Why now? And what, exactly, is it about Facebook that has become so appealing?

Launched as “thefacebook” in February 2004 in a Harvard dorm room by Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes, Dustin Moskovitz and Eduardo Saverin, the concept originally had a specific college focus: At the time, every freshman entering college received a printed face book of their classmates with a picture and limited info like hometown and high school.

The bright idea was to take this online, adding an intranet communication function, allowing those who signed up to become a friend of anyone else on the network, but only if they accepted your invitation. As universities were now issuing college e-mail addresses only to verified community members, access initially was limited only to those with valid school addresses. Simple enough.

The next month, Facebook expanded to Stanford, Yale and Columbia. By June, the creators opened offices in Palo Alto, with $500,000 in funding. By December 2004, 1 million users had signed up. By May of the following year, the network had expanded to 800 colleges and raised $12.7 million in funding from venture capitalists.

Over the next few years, they expanded into work networks, added new features and applications and became available in many more languages. Today, Facebook claims to have more than 150 million active users.

I first heard about Facebook a few years ago and quickly got the appeal: I still recall spending hours poring over my freshman face book at college, as if it held some clue to my future social life. I understand why college kids would want to be on Facebook and once it took hold why it migrated both to kids in high school and to recent college graduates as a staple of their social lives. But it initially held no interest for me or my peers.

Even a year ago, the notion of someone my age being on Facebook seemed, for lack of a better word, creepy. But that was because it was assumed that if you were on Facebook, you were there to connect with, or “friend” people half your age. Or to spy – should I say oversee? – what your child was up to.

What then proved the tipping point? What changed to get us to take it on for ourselves?

These days, when we talk about change, we’re talking about Obama. So perhaps it’s not strange that Obama plays some part in this revolution, as well.

Last year, co-founder Hughes took a leave from Facebook to become director of online organizing for the Obama campaign. Hughes’ success and the media attention to Obama’s use of Facebook was what first made me consider that I needed to check out the social network.

Clearly, I was not alone, because in the months leading up to the election, I began to get more and more invitations to be on Facebook. In September, I was still avoiding, but by late November, three weeks after the election, I joined.

I read a fair amount of journalism about journalism, and the same sources that had noodged me toward blogging now insisted I needed to be on Facebook. The justification that somehow this had a benefit beyond the social also helped push me over the edge.

So it began – I started with a book-jacket type photo and then switched to a poorer quality, more casual off-kilter shot – more “me” and what seems to be favored on the site.

I replied to the accumulated friend requests I had received. Within hours of joining, I received more requests from high school classmates I had not spoken to in 30 years. I wondered how they could be monitoring full-time (turns out Facebook has the technology to do so for you).

I then used my e-mail list to see who else was on Facebook and sent friendship requests to them.

As my number of friends increased, I suffered moments of moral doubt: Should I accept friendship from people I was not friends with or people I knew but didn’t really like? Or even those I knew but whom I didn’t want to invite into the privacy of my Facebook world? And what about friend requests from people I didn’t even know?

What did it mean to request friendship from someone else? Should I be friending only people I knew socially or also those I’d met professionally? Was it inappropriate for me, a married man, to do so to a single woman? How should I feel if someone ignored my request? How many friends is too few? How many too many? Is there such thing as a Facebook slut? (There is, and you know who you are.)

Within days (if not hours), I learned to stop worrying and embrace this world. I came up with my own rules, which are still evolving.

Thus far, I am still skeptical of causes and most group invitations. I don’t feel comfortable having my friends’ teenage children be friends on my site, and I don’t friend people I don’t know (a rule I just broke this morning when friended by a performer whose work I know). All of which will probably evolve further, with time.

What I have discovered is that Facebook rewards certain behaviors that would not otherwise be socially acceptable – such as poaching your friends’ friends or even trolling for friends among the listed friends of people you yourself don’t want to friend. It allows for a certain voyeurism, an ability to search for others and peek at their friends.

On other hand, it also allows you to find people from your past and reconnect with them, to forge casual relations with people you know slightly but have come to feel you now know better. I have reconnected with high school classmates, my childhood skateboarding buddy and fellow classmates from the Radcliffe Publishing Course.

Over the last two months, as Facebook fever has spread throughout my generation, I have noticed that some use Facebook as a place to be found – they never react or contribute but just accept friend requests. Others use it like a holiday card, uploading pictures of their children or pets. For some, it is a promotional device for their cause, for their art, for their next public event.

The “status update” feature of Facebook is often mocked – it allows you to post what you are doing. For some it is a prosaic account of their daily iterations, for others an opportunity to comment on personal and public events, offering what may be food for thought, humorous, or strange or all of the above.

For others it is an evolving art form – a return of the bon mot, the witty saying, the great line – an art form that stretches from the Greek epigrams to the Algonquin Round Table but seems in recent times to have been relegated to New Yorker cartoon captions.

Still the question remains: Why Facebook for our generation? Why now? Why not MySpace or LinkedIn?

I suppose you expect me to say it’s because it’s Jewish. That in some way, like Nancy Mitford’s “U and Non-U” classification for all things, the other social networks are goyish, while Facebook is Jewish in nature, deriving from the traditional Jewish values of community and of the need for a minyan. I agree that this argument may well be a stretch with no foundation in fact, but what I do believe is that Facebook’s appeal for our generation is that it is haimish.

For younger users, Facebook’s appeal may have more to do with dating and potential hookups, but I find that for most of my friends, although dating may be one of its uses, Facebook is like the iPod of our lives. It allows us to collect people from our lives, and, much like the thousands of songs, most of which we will never listen to on a daily basis, there is great comfort in knowing they are there and accessible.

Finally, and perhaps this is the real reason Facebook resonates so strongly right now with our generation: Facebook offers, quite simply, a way for me to say, “Tom is….”

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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Copyright 2009 Tommywood