By Mariya Ilyas
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Sixteen-yea r-old Ariel Smallwood of Bowie, Md., recently uploaded her pictures from a past weekend, talked to a friend in California, messaged another friend in Ohio, made reservations to attend Charles H. Flowers High School’s “Class of ’09 Party of the Century,” joined the Duke Class of 2013 Group, and told the world she was having a great day. All without leaving her seat.
With the rise of free social networking websites, particularly Facebook.com, more and more users have been able to “connect and share with the people in your life,” as the site encourages.
In hopes that users will do just that, Facebook recently updated its design and layout. Some of the changes: allowing live “news” feeds to show what your friends are doing on the site, the option to comment on the status and feed of others, and “liking” a feed of a friend.
Previously, users could only update their “statuses” – short blurbs about the person, such as what one is doing or thinking at the moment – and occasionally see what their friends were doing.
Now, Facebook has become a huge social networking Web site not just teens, but also adults and businesses.
Businesses can create a “Fan Page,” to advertise and communicate with every person who is their “fan” or who has joined their page.
Fairfax County’s e-Government Steering Committee, which is in charge of online communication, decided to use networking sites MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube to disseminate important information to residents. The MySpace page was closed because it had few members; however, the committee then created a Fan Page on Facebook last year.
“We’ve seen our Fan Page grow from four to 689,” said Greg Licamele, Web contact director for the county who is in charge of updating online media. “We have constant updates and we are trying to broaden who we reach.”
In fact, broad reach was always the point.
Facebook was created by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, then a 20-year-old student at Harvard University, for online social networking at the school. It then spread to other Ivy League schools and to students at schools with social contacts with Harvard. It wasn’t long before Facebook had users worldwide.
Fairfax County’s Facebook Fan Page has updates about crime alerts and hazards. Recently, a notification was posted about a measles outbreak in the county.
Businesses and other organizations — universities, newspapers, television broadcasts, and even Girl Scout Somaoa Cookies — have benefited from the new changes and features allowed on Fan Pages.
For example, those groups now have the ability to send updates straight to the news feed of any person who has chosen to be a fan. This makes their online marketing strategies more effective – all for free.
Still, some of Facebook’s early users don’t care for the new look.
“Facebook has gotten bigger and more disorganized,” said Jessica Taylor, 18, of Alexandria, Va. “I actually liked the news feed when they introduced it because you can keep up what your friends are doing but now they don’t just show stories, but every little detail.”
The old design only showed status, relationship, and group updates. The revamped design shows every update – including what one writes on another’s “wall” (forum).
“I don’t like the new layout because I was used to the previous one, which was a lot simpler,” said Asma Ahmad, 18, of Alexandria , Va.
The new features aside, she has used Facebook for more than three years and continues to be a big fan.
“I think Facebook is trying to create a network of people for various reasons besides just social communication,” Ahmad said. “Everyone wants to share good news with close friends so what better way than to announce it on Facebook where everyone finds things out in seconds.”
It has a competitor now too: Twitter, a free social networking Web site that allows users to send and read brief messages.
And the Fairfax County’s e-Government Steering Committee is ready to use it.
“Each (media outlet) has distinct audiences and uses with them,” said Licamele. “We recognize those trends.”