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How real is Facebook? Let me count the ways ...

Facebook stock began trading Friday May 18 |  Mahesh Kumar A.~AP

Facebook stock began trading Friday, May 18 | Mahesh Kumar A.~AP

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Updated: July 1, 2012 11:59AM



Facebook is worth $100 billion — more than Kraft, Ford, or Disney, if Friday’s initial public offering is any indication. A lot. High time to look hard at this Facebook contraption and try to figure out what it is.

I joined four years ago, after the newspaper told us to. Yes sir! We wheezing inky dinosaurs shall shake the tar off our scaly backsides and lumber off into the shiny new world of social media. I may not get these kids, with their hip and their hop, but I’ve got a Facebook page.

Slowly it grew. I knew something was going on when the boys and I were out West — geez — almost three years ago. I found myself taking photographs, not for the folks back home, not for photo album keepsakes, but for my Facebook pals. I wanted the perfect shot of a cowboy on a bucking bronco at the rodeo in Cody, Wyo., so I could post it as my profile picture to be admired by all my friends.

Or should that be “friends”? Facebook was like having a Greek chorus of masked strangers commenting on your life.

Yet they were helpful, in real ways. Pulling into Salt Lake City, after a few weeks on the road, I posted a line to the effect of “What the heck do we do in Salt Lake City now that we’ve seen the Mormon Temple?” And someone I never met said, “Go to Ruth’s Diner.” So we shrugged and went. It was great. Chocolate malt pudding and red trout and eggs.

That’s real, right? As was the Facebook friend who posted a suicide note and then killed himself. As is that Norwegian nurse who came here to marry some guy she met on my Facebook page. She’s kept me posted on her doings almost every day since then. For years.

Is that strange? Heck yeah. But new technology always feels strange. People recoiled from the cold hard light made by electricity, as opposed to the gas jet’s gentle flickering glow. The telephone was denounced — the constant ringing would drive men mad. I heard the word “addiction” more than once to describe Facebook. Is it an addiction, or simply new?

I’ve played 857 games of Facebook Scrabble, so far (444 won, 413 lost, if you must know). Am I addicted? I haven’t watched 857 hours of television over the past three years. TV used to be a scary addiction. Now it’s quaint. Believe me, I know what addiction is, and if Facebook is one, then so are books, golf and knitting.

Those of you who aren’t on Facebook yet might wonder: “What’s the appeal?” Vanity, mostly. Your Facebook page is a shrine to yourself — flattering photos of you, quotes you appreciate, hobbies you like. You you you, all the time. Used to be the couple who dragged out the projector to show slides of their trip to Hawaii were bores. Now Facebook has made us all bores, posting pictures of our lunch, our pets, our flower beds, our children’s drawings.

That may be harsh. I might be a special case, since I have thousands of Facebook friends I don’t know. My mom seems to appreciate the photos of my kids. Maybe I’m an exception, because to me Facebook is a business tool. It helps catch typos. I find subjects for columns on Facebook and, when I’m done writing, Facebook is another way to slingshot a column into whirling online info-vortex.

Are there dangers? Sure. I can’t decide whether Facebook assuages your loneliness or makes you even lonelier. Sometimes people crowd around your posts, yammering happily, and sometimes they scatter and hide. The thing ebbs and flows strangely.

Facebook has newspaper-like qualities, but emphasizing image and brevity. A well-reasoned 800-word column won’t get passed around the way a pithy phrase plastered over Gene Wilder’s face will. It also encourages false intimacy — the Norwegian nurse’s marriage lasted two weeks — and invites some people to continually intrude into the lives of newspaper columnists who might not appreciate their endless patter of unrequited affection.

Facebook welcomes you into the heads of people you would otherwise never know — for good and ill. If you’re not careful you find yourself engaging in endless heated arguments with people you’ve never met and don’t want to meet. A big slice of Facebook seems devoted to pouring contempt upon Barack Obama.

Bottom line: It’s here, investors bet billions that it’s going to stay here. It’s hard to go broke with something that tickles your ego, soothes isolation and offers Scrabble, all for free.

Will it grow? Will it last? If the past were always an accurate guide to the future, then Chicago would have soared to 13 million residents — that’s what Daniel Burnham predicted in his 1909 Chicago plan, based on how fast it was growing at the end of the 19th century.

Bear that in mind. While the Wall Street fiesta for Facebook’s future is based on how it shot from a Harvard dorm to global omnipresence in eight years, and I’d wager money, if I had any, on its next eight years, Facebook’s quick rise is also a reminder how quickly stuff can fall. Shopping malls were hot once, too.



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