The ups and downs of Facebook

SOCIAL networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have gone from being almost unknown to global phenomenons in just a few years.

In 2004, when Harvard University Steve Zuckerberg set up a website to let fellow students communicate with each other, little did he know it would change the internet forever.

From the intial 1,200 members who joined Facebook on its first day, the social networking site has ballooned to become the biggest in the world, with some 400 million members. That's about seven per cent of the world's population!

For those of you not au fait with it, Facebook is basically a forum where online 'friends' are able to send messages to each other and share pictures.

It doesn't sound like much, but it's highly addictive. So much so that of the 28,280,000 Brits who are online, about 50 per cent of them are on Facebook.

However, it's not the only site. Quickly catching it up in the popularity stakes is Twitter, to which 42 per cent of UK broadbanders now also subscribe.

Slightly different to Facebook, it takes more of a diary format, where members constantly post updates about what they're up to.

Famous users include TV presenter and actor Stephen Fry, who at one point had half a million followers, and Sunderland striker Darren Bent who famously got into trouble in 2008 for 'Twittering' about his then-manager Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur.

One person who understands how important it is to be careful on such sites is South Tyneside's very own online superstar, Lauren Luke, who said: "You should only put out what you're willing to get back in return."

Having shot to fame on YouTube in 2007 with her bedroom-based make-up tutorials, she was besieged with 'friend' requests, taking her way beyond the British average of 173.

"I wasn't ignoring people. It was just I got to my limit of 5,000 friends, and I wasn't allowed any more," the 27-year-old mum-of-one admitted.

Now with a dedicated Facebook fan page, and via regular updates on Twitter, she's joined up the different aspects of her internet life to make sure her legions of followers always know what she's up to.

"Twitter and Facebook have been good for me, as I can communicate with a lot more people than I could do before with just e-mails."

For her, the success of the latter especially, is due to the changing nature of how we as a society communicate nowadays.

"It's short and sweet, and people don't have to send long e-mails. People can't be bothered anymore."

Another South Tynesider who's taken advantage of this internet zeitgeist is Carla Benstead, a 20-year-old Sunderland University student and award-winning blogger.

Since setting up her website – MessyCarla: A Fashion Blog In A Size 16 – in October, she's gone from having a few dozen hits to more than 2,000 per week.

As a sign of the times, she explained how these sites are now an essential part of any young person's social – and tellingly, educational life.

"Being a media student, they are the easiest way to keep in contact. We don't even bother with phone numbers any more.

"With Facebook you can message lots of people at the same time. When we started at university the lecturers told us to set up a Facebook page. It's easy for them to then let us know about things going on."

Like all things in popular culture, certain things go out of fashion as quickly as they came in.

Facebook she thinks is doomed to go the way of MySpace, which five years ago was the most popular networking website, yet is now considered an irrelevancy.

"I think the popularity of Facebook is going down. I don't use it half as much as I used to two years ago. People my age use Twitter more."

Even this has its annoyances, though. "I don't like it when people do pointless updates, such as 'I've just had a cup of tea'."

Asked the now-obligatory question of whether these sites deter people from having real interactions with others, she replied: "I don't think they are replacing conversations. It's just a different platform for communications."

South Tyneside Council's lead member for culture and wellbeing, Coun Tracey Dixon, is a keen user of Facebook to keep up with old friends and work colleagues.

However, she thinks vigilance is needed to stop paedophiles and other deviants exploiting youngsters on the site.

Such an example was the case of Peter Chapman, 33, who murdered 17-year-old, Ashleigh Hall, in Sedgefield last year after wooing her under false pretences on Facebook.

"The sites are fun, as long as they are controlled. In the light of recent events, we have to make sure kids who use them do so with caution and under supervision from their parents," said Tracey.

The Gazette's point person for all things Facebook is Verity Ward, who uses it for both personal and work reasons.

The 24-year-old said: "On the Gazette's Facebook page we often have competition offers and thought-provoking questions to get our readers to interact with the paper.

"The Gazette has 5,000 friends, the majority of which often update their status mentioning newsworthy events and things they've spotted.

"They will also sometimes send us messages about potential story ideas.

"Journalism is changing because of things like Facebook. News comes to us much quicker nowadays."

As for her social life, she had much to thank Steve Zuckerberg for.

"I still speak to everyone I used to. If anything, because of Facebook I talk to people even more."