Thursday, June 18, 2009

Facebook FOIA* Part I

What did we all do before Facebook? How did we get through the day not knowing what Jennie ate for breakfast, that she “is” (yes, that’s a profound one) and that some quiz - devised by someone with a fifth grader’s grasp of grammar - has determined that Jennie is most like Rachel from Friends?

No doubt Facebook has changed how we share and receive information in ways that work to our benefit and to our detriment.** Before Facebook, you could send out an email to friends announcing some type of news and chances are this information was staying within the realm of people who knew you and who actually cared. The photos of your last trip to Spain or from your niece’s birthday party were likely not being forwarded on to virtual strangers in mass emails (unless, of course, your trip to Spain was that good). With the advent of Facebook, however, we can all be exhibitionists to the extent we feel the need to be and there are certainly no lack of voyeurs...

This blog, naturally, wishes to concern itself primarily with Facebook’s impact on the dating world. Although, while I have the floor, I would just like to say on behalf of all the non-married people out there to their married friends – yes, we think your two year old looks adorable with a milk mustache, but does that have to be YOUR profile picture?! Ok, moving on…

There’s no question that Facebook’s emergence in our lives over the past few years and the information overload that comes with it has had a significant effect on the interaction among its “single” users. If you think about it, back in the day if you met someone at a bar or a party, chances are it would take several dates before you could gather certain critical information about him or her. Now, you can look someone up on Facebook and obtain a wealth of information in under five minutes. Clearly, with all the information people put at Facebook’s 200 million users’ fingertips,
there are bound to be judgments made and dating opportunities lost or gained. If you think that people are not assessing what you choose to write or post, think again (e.g., exactly why is this person becoming a fan of NYC?)

Indeed, sometimes such easily accessed information about an individual can have a surprisingly positive effect on a prospective suitor (i.e.,wow, for such a scenester, Sasha’s status updates are unexpectedly insightful”). While sometimes a little bit of research can have just the opposite effect (i.e., "ok, having read Andrew’s posts quoting Rush Limbaugh, it’s clear he’s a right wing fanatic" ). Likewise, if someone is playing Mafia Wars all day, you have to wonder if he actually has any interest in his job (read: ambition).

Let’s address the assessment of photos, because - let’s face it - when someone sends a friend request, pictures are always the first thing people click on.*** Say you’re a guy who hit on fifteen girls at a charity event last night and now one of them, Jennie, is sending you a friend request. Perhaps you drank a bit too much and, thus, all of the girls in little black dresses now seem to mesh into one. No problem … Jennie’s got pictures of her whole life proudly displayed to refresh your recollection.

After two minutes in the photo gallery, you now know where Jennie went to camp (what a cute kid she was!), what her mother looks like (good genes) and that she’s got some cute friends (if you’re the typical NY guy, you’d probably be wondering if you can hit on them too or would that be wrong?). Pre-Facebook, it might have taken a few dates to see what Jennie looks like in bikini, but now there’s the glamour shot from her last Caribbean sailing trip posted for everyone’s viewing pleasure. Jennie’s got a nice body - friend request accepted. Now you can see where Jennie’s headed to next based on her miniature calendar status, and stalk her (whoops, I mean conveniently also go there).

That’s a glimpse into the positive side of pictures. On the other hand, after seeing a few pictures of another prospective love interest, you may be tempted to click the "ignore" prompt … or at least hit “accept” knowing that this one’s not going anywhere. For example, one guy I know has picture after picture of him consuming beers, partying like a rockstar and looking two sheets to the wind in all of them. He’s in his late 40s and single. Good dating material? Doubtful. Same red flags start waving with the guy whose pictures show him cavorting with girls half his age and groping all of them – unless, of course, you’re looking for that kind of thing.

In fact, it occurred to me the other day that anyone who is engaged in on-line dating should take advantage of Facebook as their backup detective service. That’s where you get the real information. On a purely, superficial note, if you’re a guy fed up with women who post only head shots and who put “petite” as their body type simply because they’re under 5’3”, there is a high probability that if you check on Facebook “JenG73” will have more than enough body shots posted for you to get a true sense of her real physique. Same goes for the women. When “Steve45Esq” is telling you he’s 5’11” and his Facebook profile shows him at a fundraiser standing shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Bloomberg (who’s only 5’8” by the way) you can then assess whether you feel like sharing a mocha latte on Tuesday with someone who’s clearly insecure about his height (and probably lying about his age too).

Of course, you can also get a real sense of what a person’s about reading his or her status updates, looking at his/her friends, reading what people write on this person’s wall, checking out his/her groups and causes ... remember, detective not stalker… God, there’s so much to say on this one, this is just the tip of the iceberg…

* For the non-lawyers out there, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966, is an act which allows for members of the general public to request and obtain (with restrictions) otherwise undisclosed information about government agencies.

** For those who may not know, Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg in February 2004 (along with fellow computer science major students and Zuckerberg’s roommates Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes) while Zuckerberg was a student at Harvard.

***Of course, there are seemingly endless items to evaluate on the topic of Facebook and what insights a person's profile/status updates convey about him or her but remember this is only "Facebook FOIA Part I." And, of course, there's also Facebook "dating protocol" which I also intend to address in a future blog.


  1. Marni, great blog! I was late to Facebook, having refused requests by friends for more than a year to "just get on Facebook already!" It is a very powerful tool - within a short period of time, I not only reconnected after years with many friends, but reconnected with a woman I had dated briefly in the past, and found out there was still a spark there. I do not beleive that would have happened without Facebook. On the other hand, I have had the disconcerting experience of a former platonic friend who is now married making unwanted and inapprorpriate advances. If I were her husband, I would be more than upset. You might consider a blog on the new challenges this highly connected world presents to singles and married couples alike.

  2. Marni, great blog. Before facebook, I suffered from information underload, now I suffer from information overload. I know too much about too many people; immediate certainty has replaced the mystery of eventual discovery... Perhaps this,too, is a hindrance to the long term viability of romantic relationships. Should you run into a service that is somewhere in between, please call me because I am looking for the momma bear of social networking sites. Not too much, not too little. Smile.

  3. fun and insightful blog marni! yes, as commented on, there is the dark side of facebook as well...information overload, lack of privacy, temptations from the past, (i.e., distracting pictures of beautiful women)and of course annoying faces seeking access after many years...keep it up marni! Jeremy