Tom Braslavsky: Facebook down, college students out?

Thursday afternoon, Facebook spread the news that its website was temporarily out of service. through Twitter: “@Facebook: Facebook may be slow or unavailable for some people because of site issues. We’re working to fix this quickly.”

For the next few hours, while the world’s top social networking site experienced its worst outage in four years, some GW students sat at their laptops, staring at the error screen and repeatedly hitting refresh in the hope that their homepages would come back up. Soon enough, some students were falling asleep in class, hitting up other social networks or wondering what to do with all their new free time.

It’s fascinating to think of how social networking has taken over our lives. To make the most of your time at GW (or college in general), the thinking goes, you need to have an active Facebook account. How else would we find out about upcoming events, share hundreds of pictures with each other or keep up with old friends? Odd, isn’t it, that spending alone time in front of a computer screen can help you be more social?

As I sat looking at the “DNS error” that greeted me at the site’s homepage, I thought about how much collective time we spend “connected.” Of course, there’s the time spent on our computers, which probably takes away from productive activities – could that partially explain some GW students’ failure to get to know D.C.? Maybe that’s why we need an “incentive program” at the gym. But even on the go, we stay connected. Almost everyone at GW has a smart phone; whereas it used to be cool and special to carry around an iPhone or BlackBerry, many will now think you’re out-of-touch if you don’t have one. “Liking” someone’s Facebook comment while walking down the street or standing in line at the store has become commonplace.

The Great Facebook Outage of 2010 – which altered our lifestyles for a fraction of a day – presents us with an opportunity to look at our lives from a different perspective. Maybe we’re not making the most of the world beyond the LCD screen. How can we change this? I have a friend who goes through phases in his relationship with Facebook. When he feels it’s taking up too much of his time, he suspends his account, effectively taking himself out of the virtual world. Then, when his schedule frees up or he starts to miss his account, he reactivates it again. This occurs on a sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly basis.

I’m not saying your action should be that radical. My proposition is this: If you’re a constant social networker, for one day try to note how much time you spend on Facebook or similar sites. Then, cut it in half. Yes, in half. Even if you’re multitasking while “liking” people’s statuses, it subtracts from your full potential for creativity and critical thinking. You seem less personable if you meet someone while typing something on your phone. And if you are actually just sitting down and devoting time to your online network, take some of that time to meet with your outside network. Go to the gym or go to a Smithsonian. Social networking is useful, but it is also a time-drainer from real-world activities.

This Friday, the movie “The Social Network” comes out. It is a story of the alleged drama that accompanied the creation of Facebook. While the actual account has been disputed, we do know a few things about the creators of the site that has taken over our lives: They were college students, young people like us who had a big idea and saw it through. It’s definitely inspiring and should make us more confident in our own potential. At the same time, there’s irony: Is Facebook and what it has done to the concept of “friends” now taking away from the productivity of college students who could be realizing their own innovative ideas? Think about it. Then change your status.

-The writer, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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