Last July, a friend of mine—a young journalist who writes about the Middle East—grabbed my laptop as we sat in a Manhattan café. "You have to join Facebook," she told me, and began signing me up. Until that moment, I'd thought registering with one of the various online social networks was as senseless as signing up for spam. But a commotion was building at a nearby table. "Are they on Facebook?" someone squealed. Three people—two of whom I knew—were peering at our screens. They, too, were converts.
If you are not one of the 63 million people (and counting) who are members of Facebook, here is a quick debriefing. It's like an online yearbook. Once you join, a page called your profile pops up on your screen—a white box, a picture of you. Underneath are notes you write (as on a dorm memo board) for your friends to read, photos you've uploaded, and the standard personal-ad rap sheet of your favorite bands, books, movies, quotations, and so on. Another feature is the news feed—a constantly updated list of the news, notes, photos, and invitations your Facebook friends have posted on their profile pages.
Reluctantly, resentfully even, I posted a picture to my profile, added photos that didn't seem too shaming, filled in personal trivia, and added a couple of applications—like "Where I've Been," which posts a map of the world on your page, colored in with places you've traveled. "This is very silly," I said.
Later that night, I heard an unfamiliar ping on my BlackBerry. A dashing man I hadn't seen in years had left me a funny note on my wall—an online bulletin board that appears on each profile, where friends post personal messages or notional gifts (cartoon illustrations of ninjas, bubble wands, bouquets, etc.) for public consumption. The elation I felt at being "friended" by this Cary Grant–like pal was ridiculous, raw, and very real. Excited, I began entering names of people I knew in the Facebook search box, not only those I saw every week but old friends I hadn't seen in ages—schoolmates and roommates, friends from summer vacations, friends from foreign travels—and asked them to "friend" me.
Over the next few weeks, my spirits leapt every time the Facebook notifier chimed, signaling that a message, video, or invitation had landed on my page. My regular e-mail in-box bursts with work correspondence and unsolicited ads. My Facebook in-box is all humor break, all the time. When I read my friends' updates on the news feed, I learn that one has just married and had a baby; another is in Alaska filming a documentary; another is lecturing in Australia. I now have a couple hundred online friends. There is no way I could make 200 catch-up calls once a week, once a month, or even once a year without exhausting myself. But this way, I can passively, at my own convenience, absorb the changes that are shaping other lives. Reading the updates, I discover that men and women who once were important to me still are, even if geography and time divide us. I've reconnected with people, turned acquaintances into friends, deepened the texture of my close friendships (it's amazing what your friends don't bother to tell you), and seen opportunities for face-to-face socializing multiply—as friends use the in-box group e-mail function to herd each other to concerts, dinners, and parties.
Not every user is as enthusiastic and unguarded as I tend to be. A Facebook page is a fair mirror of its creator. My shy friends shun photographs and avoid frivolous applications, while my extroverted friends festoon their pages with gewgaws, pass along viral videos and movie quizzes, and inundate me with gifts and pokes (like taps on the shoulder) and superpokes—whimsical announcements that a friend has (virtually) serenaded you, kissed you, or trout-slapped you, and so on. Admittedly, this is inane. It is also, in a word, fun.
Today a cupcake landed on my wall, a gift from a lovely woman who was my best friend, colleague, and roommate for a few unforgettable months in Moscow in the '90s. For a summer, we worked at a Russian magazine, threw dinner parties in the tiny apartment we shared, and went out dancing with friends night after night. I thought we would never lose touch. But we did, until last fall, when we remet on Facebook. Seeing the cupcake, I smiled, clicked, and sent its sender a flower. Because that's what friends do: They reciprocate...if they know how to find each other. And when I see her in London this summer, I'll bring her a cupcake in person.