Facebook used to be all about the location of the next kegger, who hooked up with whom and maybe keeping in touch with the foreign student you studied with for a semester. Now this formerly exclusive community is increasingly being used for business networking -- and that's causing some of the service's longtime users to be a lot less forthcoming about the information they share on the site.
"Facebook has moved way too far away from what it started as to appeal much to me anymore," says Lindsay McCarthy, a recent University of Chicago graduate. "Now that everyone and their mother -- literally -- have a profile, every 'friend' request I get makes me cringe. I've considered many times simply deleting my account because it seems far past a usefulness tipping point for staying in touch with real friends."
In part, the demographic shift is inevitable. People who joined Facebook when it first launched and was available only to college students have since graduated and are now out in the work force. But the rate of culture change has increased dramatically in the past month, users say. Although its doors opened to non-students in September, 2006, it was not until this May's launch of the Facebook platform that onslaught began in earnest.
Since December, the site's user base has doubled to 24 million people, more than half of whom are out of college. Special interest groups have sprung up for businesses, journalists, librarians, marketers, software developers and web 2.0 entrepreneurs. Facebook is being used for everything from product promotion to Linked In-style professional networking.
Gawker Media publisher Nick Denton wrote in May that all of his employees were required to have Facebook accounts and that the company's staff directory was being moved to the site. "I would have been mocked for using Linked In for that purpose."
For longtime users, the influx of grownups means that information once intended for a circle of fellow students is now available for anyone to see. That has introduced a new social conundrum: Deciding whose invites should be accepted -- and how much of your profile they should be able to see.
"You can't really unfriend your mom," says Hillary Woolley, a junior at the University of California at Davis. "So I've been upping my privacy settings."
Facebook lets users specify what data is displayed in searches, and users can customize a "limited" view for select friends. But it's time-consuming to set up customized views for individuals, so most people are simply walling off their profiles to non-friends.
"I have removed almost all useful or personally insightful information from my profile because at this point most people who I am 'friends' with I really don't want in my business anymore," says McCarthy.
And it's not just your mom you need to hide from. Graduates who have entered the teaching profession now have to contend with friend invites from students. "I let (students) view only a restricted profile on Facebook, which is only my photo and basic info," says Emily Malbon, a teacher in Boston. "I don't need them reading about how much I like wine."