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What are Facebook friends for?

The Pharaohs built statues. Caesar put his visage on coins. We use Facebook and MySpace.

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Although only in their adolescence, social networking sites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com, which allow users to create profiles complete with pictures, commentary, music, and links to others, have become a major cultural presence. They offer users an easy way to keep track of old friends, find new ones, and advertise their popularity by listing and ranking the ones they already have. They make friendship more convenient and offer ways for the like-minded to congregate in virtual space.

But does this technology, with its constant demands to collect and manage our friends and to relentlessly market ourselves, in some ways undermine our ability to achieve what it so boldly promises to give us – a surer sense of who we are and where we belong? The Delphic Oracle's guidance was, "Know thyself." Today, in the world of online social networks, the Oracle's advice might be, "Show thyself."

Unlike earlier online communities such as GeoCities, which were organized around virtual neighborhoods, one's entree into the social networking world is through the revelation of personal information. And unlike a real-life neighborhood, where one usually has general knowledge of others who live in the area, social networking sites are gatherings of deracinated individuals, none of whose personal boastings or musings are necessarily trustworthy. Here, the old arbiters of community – geographic location, family, role, or occupation – have little effect on relationships.

Enthusiasts praise social networking for presenting chances for identity-play; they see opportunities for all of us to be little Van Goghs and Warhols, rendering quixotic and ever-changing versions of ourselves for others to enjoy. Instead of a palette of oils, we can employ services such as PimpMySpace.org, which offers "layouts, graphics, backgrounds, and more" to gussy up an online presentation of self, albeit in a decidedly raunchy fashion: sexually explicit images and crude video clips are among the most popular graphics used by PimpMySpace clients.

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