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What is Facebook and why should you use it?

Facebook is a social networking service that lets you connect with friends, co-workers, and others who share similar interests or who have common backgrounds. Many use it as a way to stay in touch after finishing school, or as a way to share their life publicly. What makes Facebook different from other social networks are its extensive privacy controls, its development platform, and its large and quickly growing user base. Facebook has been called the “thinking person’s” social network. Compared to many other social networks, Facebook gets new features and improvements on a regular basis.

Setup

Facebook, like other social networks, is all about getting in touch with others. Luckily for novice users, Facebook has created some simple ways to find your friends using your e-mail address, or the buddy list from your AOL instant messaging account. You can also search by name, or pull up listings based on your computer’s address book.

Facebook Contacts

Facebook Contacts

Find your friends with Facebook’s built-in friend finder.

To get started adding friends to Facebook (many of who may already be on the system), I recommend a multipronged attack. Use your most active Web mail account (Hotmail, as one example), and your AIM buddy list, which in some cases could pull up nearly everyone you know. Since everyone needs an e-mail address to sign up with Facebook, giving Facebook permission to use your existing address books should make it possible to track down everyone with whom you communicate.

Once you’ve added the people you know or remember (you can always add or delete them later on), one of your first steps should be filling out your own profile. You’re welcome to do this before tracking down your friends, but you’ll find that people are almost always constantly making tweaks to their profile, so nothing is set in stone. The two main things that are important here are a personal picture, and your contact information–both of which Facebook highlights when you’re setting things up. For profile pictures, it can be anything you’d like, and you can simply upload an image to the service from your hard drive. Filling out the rest of your profile is as simple as completing any Web form. You’re not required to include anything about yourself, so don’t feel too inclined to fill out information you don’t want others to see; which brings us to the topic of privacy, which you can read more about after the break…

Continue reading to learn about privacy, saying hello, “poking,” sharing bookmarks, and using Facebook applications. We’ll also delve into some advanced items, such as add-ons and hidden features.

Privacy

Privacy is one of the key differentiators of Facebook from other social networking services. Facebook gives you the option to control what others see, right down to individual photo albums, or various pieces of personal information such as your address, phone number, and screen name on instant messaging services.

Facebook Security

To control or limit the flow of information to others–including your friends–Facebook has set up some simple controls to adjust privacy. When setting up your profile, you might have noticed some little blue locks under your contact information. You can adjust each one of these for the information to be visible to everyone, just your friends, or no one at all.

Those little blue locks are just the tip of the iceberg. To dig deeper, beyond just contact information, click the privacy link on the top right of Facebook. This will take you to a control panel that lets you manage various elements of your profile, including: what users see when searching for you; what actions Facebook reports to others; and which people get limited, or no access to your profile. While you can go in to change any of these, the two most important ones that are worth tweaking are the profile settings (what parts of your profile people can see), and your news feed and mini-feed, which is a running ticker of your activity on the service. Some people are more than happy to let everyone know what they’re doing, but if you don’t feel like sharing this information with people, it’s worth taking a minute to tweak.

As far as what you should share with everyone, it’s whatever you’re comfortable with. I’d obviously recommend keeping your home address off, along with telephone numbers. Your best bet is to provide your real e-mail address, and limit it to friends only. If you do make your e-mail publicly available, try to use a secondary account, or one you use for spam.

Saying hello

Once you’ve got your profile set up and you’ve linked with several friends, there are a handful of ways to communicate with others. The first is the Wall, which is the de facto place to leave a note on everyone’s profile page. It’s completely public, so whatever you write, others will be able to see. As of last week, you’re now able to leave attachments on people’s Walls, including photos, videos, and all sorts of rich media items that have been integrated with Facebook applications, which we’ll be getting into later on.

Facebook also has its own e-mail service. One thing that makes this internal messaging service attractive is its conversation threading, which shows each message sent back and forth. It’s a great way to keep track of who said what, similar to what you get with Gmail. Just like Gmail, you can just begin typing in a friend’s name, or pick the “send FRIEND a message” from the list of commands under their profile picture. This will open up the message composition page, where you can write to your heart’s content and add various attachments, similar to what you’re able to do on their Walls. All of this can be managed under the In-box tab, which you’ll find on the top middle of the page.

Poking

Newcomers to Facebook might be a little alarmed at the poking system, but don’t be scared. The poke is a subtle, wordless way of saying hello to someone you know–or, in some cases, don’t know. To poke anyone just pick the “Poke him/her” option on the list of actions below their profile picture. Your poke will show up in their notifications box when they log back in, and they’ll have the option to poke you back, or ignore it.

Poking is ultimately useless, although many would agree it’s one of the small charms and reminders that differentiates Facebook from other social networks.

Sharing is caring

Social bookmarking services such as Del.icio.us and Digg are a cool way to share stories or bits of Web content you’ve found. Likewise, Facebook has its own sharing system built in. You can post items to your profile or send them to your friends on and off the service. Anyone you’ve shared items with can then leave comments and discuss the item with others.

There are two easy ways to share links on Facebook. One is to copy and paste a link to your sharing page. The other is to add the “share on Facebook” bookmarklet to your browser’s bookmarks bar. If you intend on sharing things on a regular basis, I’d recommend adding the bookmarklet, as it gives you a one-click option to share something and continue browsing. Either way, once you’ve fed in a URL, it will scrape the page to grab any related pictures and a brief description. You can also go in and add your own text, which will show up right underneath it. Once you’re done tweaking it to your liking, you have the option to post it to your profile, or send it to others on or off Facebook.

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