Over the past three years, three tools have become increasingly useful for building connection online:  Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Each has its risks.  I want to touch on each of these in turn, starting with the one getting the worst press these days:  Facebook.

I admitted the other day that FB concerns me.  I am a user, even a frequent user, but I have concerns about privacy, as I explained in that other  post.  Still, Facebook is enormously useful as a tool for growing and maintaining connections.

What’s Facebook  Good For?

* Telescoping and Branching Connections.  Facebook is a tremendous tool for reengaging with friends from different points in your life.  I’m a good example of how this works.  I have lived in ten different cities over my life, including different cities for grade school, middle school, high school, college, law school, and my career.  I have about 400 or so friends on Facebook, but the remarkable thing is that they span friendships from age 6 through the present day.  I call this telescoping — dramatically reducing the temporal distance among life’s connections.  It has been terrific to have close friends from earlier times in my life find me (and vice versa) and reestablish a dialogue.  And it has been especially rewarding to watch friends from different eras of my life strike up discussions on my Wall, based upon shared interest in the content I have provided.

* Passive Pings For Greater Resonance.  Facebook allows connections to provide data about themselves that others can pick up on and respond to.  I call this the “passive ping.”  In the old days, I’d never have sent an email (or, what’s older, written a letter) to all of my friends to let them know about my son’s recent violin performance.  I probably would not have phoned more than one or two of my family members about this.  This would be so even though I knew, as a logical matter, that many of my friends may have been going through similar life experiences, and would have some understanding of just how adorable and heartwarming this sort of little event can be.  Facebook permits users to post those updates on little spots of time that allow others to pick up on them and respond, or at least file them away as potential linkages in the relationship.

* Adding Dimensions to Connection.  Facebook also permits users to become more multidimensional with their connections.  A friend perusing my profile, or watching my updates over time, would pick up on my teaching, on my interest in creativity and brain function, on my law practice, on my painting, and so forth.  Again, I likely would not start a conversation with a colleague at the lunch table about my struggle with oil media, but I have had countless friends in face-to-face conversations pick up on data I’d provided on Facebook to have a rich sharing of information.

The Downsides of Facebook.

* Too Much (Permanent) Information. We must recognize that what’s posted on the web, stays on the webt.  In the words of the Violent Femmes, ” I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record.”  It is all stored, and it is all to easy for others to get access to the data you provide.  This is a warning:  it’s not private, even when it says it’s private.  Thus, we have to be mindful of what we put down on Facebook.  Furthermore, this may force some people to make choices about whether they make “friends” of business associates.  I have a simple rule of thumb here.  Whatever I place on Facebook could end up on the front page of the New York Times, so there is little reason for me to try to screen “business” friends from “personal” friends.

* And Too Much (Evanescent) Information. There is also a risk, with FB, of being bombarded with the dross of other peoples’ lives.  I really don’t care about a lot of what I see on Facebook.  Plus, I tend to wonder about those who spend their time bombarding my account with new Facebook game updates.  Fortunately, FB’s filters can take care of much of this, and it doesn’t take much for me to avert my eyes, either.

If You’re Going to Use Facebook.

There are a number of useful guides and tip sheets on the web discussing Facebook.  This one, from Hongkiat, is a good basic tips list. For privacy, this discussion from AllFacebook is essential reading, but it has not been updated since December 2009 to cover the new privacy defaults.

So what do you use Facebook for?  Is it a tool, or just an infinite time sink?