Technology is supposed to help long distance commuters bridge many kinds of gaps—personal, intellectual, financial, and physical, to name a few. But does it really help?
I joined Facebook initially to connect with my teenage son, Nick. Nick was spending a lot of time on Facebook, ‘chatting’ with male and female friends, posting photos, commenting on friends’ photos, linking to YouTube videos, etc…
During our summer vacation last year, we would frequently pull up to hotels and find unsecured WiFi signals in parking lots or just outside of walls. We were a car full of email addicts. (Mom was a bad digital role model overall. )
I was pleased that Nick let me be his Facebook ‘friend,’ which meant that I had access to the photos, comments, ‘friends’ and expletives (lots of expletives...) on his site. Occasionally, Nick and I have found each other online at the same time through Facebook, and we have sent IMs (instant messages) to each other, which is a pleasant diversion when you are snowed in at airports for hours. In my opinion, there's a different intimacy from phone conversations when you write messages and connect online in real time.
But my son does not necessarily agree with me about the virtues of this kind of contact. Here’s what Nick has to say about teenagers using Facebook:
Facebook is an extremely popular fad and most teens today use it as their main form of comunication (besides texts of course), and that's fine for the mundane, frivolous conversations and happenings of the average teenage. But for serious conversations and long-distance relationships, Facebook is not the best way to communicate. Personally, I think phone calls are far better when conveying emotion and seriousness. The very name, FACEbook, is ironic because you don't communicate face to face, which is much better for intimate conversations. (Nick sent this as a message to me via his Facebook account)
My son has decreased the amount of time he spends on Facebook lately because he is starting a band with some of his friends. Music is his focus now, and it doesn't happen as easily on Facebook. Nick recently played me some new bass riffs he composed by putting a cell phone up to his amp. It may not have been F2F (face to face) interaction, but it was live and better than silence.
For groups or individuals without the best of motives, however, Facebook is easily abused. The N.Y. Times  just reported a story about the mafia using Facebook for networking purposes. Or, take the case of freshman Osamah Abdallah who was arrested while sitting in class at Loyola University Chicago because Adam Hart, a student at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sent a fictitious letter  after a heated Facebook exchange with Abdallah:
"I feel it is my duty as an American to inform you that
Osamah Abdallah of Loyola Chicago was talking to me
online about strapping a bomb to his chest and walking
into the Sears Tower. I hope you take action against him."
Hart found Osamah’s name on Facebook after randomly typing in the name “Osama”— Abdallah’s name came up first. Hart began to “harass” Abdallah over his Facebook account with messages, and soon he emailed the NSA who had Abdallah arrested in class based on Hart’s fictitious claim.
Abdallah’s case is the extreme, though, and it has not stopped me from using my Facebook account as a networking tool in class. Facebook has been one of the easiest and fastest ways for students to post media work online for the class to discuss. I have allowed students to be my 'friends' and to connect to a “Group” page on my account. Since I was new to Facebook last year, I did not understand the distinctions to be made on personal ‘wall’ preferences (your home page site that everyone can read) or the different categories of ‘friends.’ Many educators  advise against ‘befriending’ your students on social networking sites because of the ethical issues involved and the possibility of students (or faculty) posting intimate or inappropriate materials.
I did not worry about the ethics of access for my first class use of Facebook. Since I was a novice at using it, the students taught and advised me on how to use Facebook utilities in more advanced ways. In my classes students were writing and making films about the ethics of the Internet (including T.J. Berden's documentary, Facebooked, on the Abdallah incident). But I neglected to apply any ethical questions to our own class situation because everyone (students and teacher) treated our Facebook spaces with respect. My own instincts towards privacy keep me from over-reading either my son’s or my students’ more personal public messages, just as they inform me of popular media tendencies. Of course, not every classroom situation operates this effectively. Confused ‘Adam Harts’ as well as confused instructors exist at every university and need to be educated and protected from themselves.
Despite the few ethical challenges, plenty of interesting options exist on Facebook. I particularly like the “What are you doing right now?” section, which promotes a present-oriented philosophy of self, and is at the top of every ‘wall’ or home page. In this blog-like section of Facebook, you don’t just express what you’re doing at that moment, but, instinctively, how you feel about what you are doing. This activity involves aesthetics in all of its glory. You need just the right touch to communicate your feelings effectively. One day, I posted my mother’s sweet potato recipe that I had just finished making, and I had a number of friends respond within hours with more questions and compliments. Twitter’s service is even more direct. People start ‘twittering’ their experiences while walking down the street, sharing their immediate perceptions of the world with a network of friends. Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Suddenly, millions of people are transforming themselves into poets and video artists with instant PR circles!
The sense of immediacy and collaboration from social networking has made Facebook one tool for overcoming distances—between parent and child, student and teacher, artist and audience, politician and voter... But, as my son’s comments suggest, Facebook clearly has its limitations.
Make sure you use wisely and sprinkle your sites generously with humor and creativity…