Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The many faces of Facebook

For some, itís about friends, and for others, itís a new kind of exposure

Express Staff Writer

Theresa Grant, founder of the Wood River Valley-based nonprofit Make a Difference Now, looks over her organizationís Facebook page. Several Facebook users recently offered to buy goats to provide milk for children in Africa after being alerted to the need through Grantís profile. Photo by Willy Cook

Few websites are as versatile or ubiquitous as Facebook, and few have received as much publicity.

Originally launched as The Facebook in 2004, the social media network started by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg—and originally designed by Hailey native Andrew McCollum—continues to have a national influence. Facebook was confirmed as part of mainstream America last year with the release of "The Social Network," a blockbuster movie chronicling the birth of the site.

The uses of the site are as diverse as its users. Some use it to plan events or even remember friends' birthdays. Facebook cognoscenti in the Wood River Valley seem divided into two main user groups: those who use it as a way to connect with old friends and those who keep up with local businesses and fundraisers.

The general consensus is that a majority of valley residents are on Facebook, said Heather LaMonica Deckard, executive director of the Hailey Chamber of Commerce.

"Almost everybody I know is on it or wants to be on it," Deckard said.

However, few are as involved as Evan Lawler, Western States Geothermal employee and public relations director for economic development group Sustain Blaine. He maintains four separate pages, only one of which is personal.

Lawler said he started his personal page in 2005 when his younger brothers were still in college and the site was taking off. His goal at the time was to connect with old friends, but he said the site has helped him make new friends as well, especially in Ketchum.

"If you meet someone and know their name, but you didn't get their phone number, you can always find them on Facebook," he said.

Lawler said many of his local friends use Facebook as a way to show off pictures of their outdoor adventures, either on the mountain or in the backcountry. Nils Ribi, a Sun Valley city councilman, said he often shares pictures on his Facebook page, but he also uses his profile as a way to share information on city issues.

"It's a quick way to get information out and let people know what's going on," he said.

But for some, Facebook has a more personal connection. Lisa Huttinger, interim executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Resource Center in Ketchum, said she joined the site in 2008 after pressure from an old friend. Her participation led to her connecting with friends from high school, she said.

"I wasn't a huge fan of high school," she said, but Facebook helped to change her attitude toward her former classmates. "Connecting with Facebook actually made me go home for my high school reunion."

Huttinger said she mostly uses Facebook to keep in touch with her friends and family back home in Ohio and New York City. While she said she could tell them about her experiences "out West," Facebook allows her to share them in more detail and on a day-to-day basis.

"My New York friends ask, 'Why were you walking downtown with an elk leg?'" she said with a laugh, referring to an elk leg that had been missing from the ERC's front lawn. "It's such an easy way to share quick insights into what's going on in your life."

For Theresa Grant, founder of the nonprofit Make a Difference Now, Facebook is less of a running narrative of her daily activities and more an accidental fundraiser. Grant said that when she posts information about the projects that her organization is doing with schools and orphanages in Africa and India, her Facebook friends often help in unexpected ways.

Though it wasn't intended as a fundraiser, a recent post delineating Grant's plan to buy cows to provide milk for needy children was met with a barrage of responses. Suddenly, Grant was urged to purchase goats, which are cheaper and provide more nutritious milk, and friends offered to pay for the animals. Grant said she raised about $1,000 for goats and milk through that post.

It was all unintentional, she said, and it's not her organization's main source of fundraising.

"It's good, but it's not everything. There have been times when I've thought, 'OK, is this even helping?'" she said. "We don't always raise a lot of money, but it gets the word out."

Lawler said that his Facebook page for Western States Geothermal is not necessarily a revenue-generator either.

"Strategically using social media to sell is tough," he said. "For me, it's more about brand awareness. If they see a blurb from us every now and again, at least they're thinking of us."

Huttinger, who runs the Facebook page for the ERC, said she wasn't sure how many new people the page is drawing in.

"We're still exploring the benefits," she said. "Even if it's not generating actual dollars or members for us, I think it's still important to have a presence."

Huttinger said most of the ERC's exposure comes through friends of friends. When one user "likes" a page, all of that user's friends can see it on their Facebook home page, which grants the page more exposure.

But it's this exposure, where all users can see who another user is friending or interacting with, that raises concerns about social media and privacy.

Craig Barry, former executive director of the ERC, said the easiest way to avoid trouble when mingling business contacts and personal Facebook use is simply to remember that everything is in the public domain.

"You need to have a modicum of taste and perhaps restraint from time to time," Barry said. "If there's anything that you would be ashamed of, it probably shouldn't be on your Facebook page."

Deckard said she cut down on her Facebook use precisely because of the amount of information she felt she was sharing. When she first joined in 2006, she friended everyone, mostly college classmates, she said. In time, she had more than 600 Facebook friends.

"Eventually, I just felt like I was too exposed," she said.

Deckard said that's why she avoids most other social media sites, with the exception of Twitter. Because Facebook was the first site of its kind, Deckard said she thinks its users were not as informed about Internet exposure when the site was first launched.

"Facebook got a lot of us when we weren't so concerned about privacy," she said. "We got grandfathered in."

Ribi said he limits what he lets the public see on his Facebook profile, in part because of his professional role.

"I'm not doing it to go out and advertise to the world," he said, adding that he uses Facebook's privacy settings extensively. "That's the nice thing about Facebook—you can control it."

While Twitter and the business social network LinkedIn are quickly gaining popularity, Lawler said he's on both because of his involvement on Facebook.

"Once you're on one social media platform, it's so easily linked that to me it just seems silly not to expand," he said.

Ribi predicted that social media would only continue to expand, and said the valley should make every attempt to ride that wave.

"If we're not prepared for this whole shift to social media, we'll be left behind," he said. "That's where the future is."

Katherine Wutz:

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