By the (Face)book: Social media connects local communities.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 4/30/10.] Even if you’re not a member, you’ve likely heard of Facebook. Since its launch in 2004, the social networking Web site has become a global phenomenon with more than 400 million active users worldwide. That translates to more than 500 billion minutes users spend on the site in a given month (with most of that time likely being devoted to playing “FarmVille” and “Mafia Wars”)

But aside from being a monumental time-waster at work (“Which ‘LOST’ character are you?”) and a discreet way of keeping tabs on your exes (“Hey, who’s that dude with the fauxhawk in all those pictures on her Wall?”), Facebook is actually kind of useful.

It’s somewhat ironic that I’m writing a column in praise of Facebook; I will surely catch some flack from my friends. I am a relative latecomer to the Facebook scene. Don’t get me wrong; I was there before your grandmother was. Still, I was far from an early adopter. I remember back in college, maybe 2005 or so, when the site starting to set up networks on college campuses. Facebook was all the rage, and I remained firmly opposed to the trend.

In those early days, the site was little more than a clearinghouse for scandalous, drunken photos and rampant, petty gossip and cattiness. One night, a friend even went so far as to set up an account for me. All I had to do was confirm an e-mail to activate it. The next day, I deleted the e-mail and never looked back.

Since then, Facebook has graduated from college. Today, the site provides people of all ages the same opportunity to gossip and embarrass themselves, now with the added benefit of having awkward conversations about your activity with parents and relatives.

It’s easy to pick on Facebook. There is something both fascinating and troubling about the way people interact with it – the content and frequency of people’s status updates, the manner of photos they choose to post, the commodity of friendship, the overall way some choose to lay their lives bare to the entire world.

“Overshare” is a term that has gained a great deal of currency in the Digital Age. Somehow, we enthusiastically handed over privacy in exchange for an approximated sense of community.

But how does Facebook translate into our real community? For those of us who have a certain level technological literacy (and self-respect), sites like Facebook are not liabilities; they are resources.

I finally caved to Facebook a little more than a year ago as I started to see that the site was becoming a useful social marketing tool. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter allow for businesses and organizations to connect to their desired audience on a personal level that was never before possible.

Creating a “page” for a business or organization on Facebook takes only a few minutes, and the results are almost as rapid. (And it’s free.) Pages exist in two modes, depending on the effort its administrator is willing, or able, to put into it. Some pages are static: they are created, people become fans of it, and that’s it. Others are active and engaging, issuing regular updates, posting photos, and reaching out to fans.

The Killington Avenue Market and Deli in Rutland falls into the latter category. Co-owner, Becky Boggess sees the effect of their page every day.

“We’ve had a great response,” said Boggess, who posts specials and other news everyday. She notes that since the creation of the page, her customers will check there before picking up the phone to call. “I never forget to do it. It keeps things fresh.”

Up the road, Killington has been using social with marked results.

“Sites like Facebook and Twitter are playing a huge role in the leisure industry,” said resort communications and public relations manager Tom Horrocks in an interview with the “Rutland Herald” in March. “People follow their interests; they’re utilizing these resources to optimize their trips.”

At the grassroots level, local organizations use Facebook to quickly get information to their members. As co-chair of Sustainable Rutland, I have used our page to post information about events, keep our members updated about projects we’re working on and share interesting links. At the moment we have almost 400 fans, which the page allows us to interact with regularly. In conjunction with our blog, we have an effective, efficient and free outreach mechanism.

Likewise, Mike Coppinger, executive director of Downtown Rutland Partnership, often turns to the site to get information to the community. “In the summertime I do a Friday Night Live Facebook page talking about music and events that will be there every week.”

Indeed, music has a fairly strong presence on my feed. Rick Redington, Duane Carleton, Ryan Fuller, and several other local musicians use the site to announce shows and connect with fans.

But do individuals utilize Facebook beyond simply doing “irreparable damage to social skills on developing brains” as Connor McGinnis, 17, noted when I posted this question on my Wall?

Others were less cynical in the responses.

“I use it to find out about restaurant specials, music, farmers markets, farm stands with produce available and sales,” said Amanda Mormile of her account.

James Greenough, another friend, said that Facebook “creates an opportunity to find out about local events … It keeps you involved in your friend’s days.”

Val Pietrodangelo agrees. “It’s another way to find out what’s going on in Rutland,” she said.

One look at my Facebook feed supports all the above comments (even Connor’s). Ultimately, the site is what you make of it – a welcome distraction, an unhealthy obsession, a potential liability or an effective tool for making meaningful connections with friends, family, customers, and the community. It all depends on how you choose to use it.

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