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Q&A: Facebook in the news

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Zoe E Breen Zoe E Breen | 11:54 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011

Social networking service Facebook has become an important part of the 21st century news machine. Here I list a few of the reasons why I think this popular website is increasingly hitting the headlines.

What is Facebook?

Facebook is the world's most popular online social networking website. Its power as a tool for sharing information, images and videos means that it is rarely out of the news.

Who invented Facebook?

The site was originally set up in 2004 by a group of students at Harvard University to share gossip and photos. The 2010 Oscar-winning film The Social Network is a Hollywood take on the rise and rise of Facebook as global phenomenon.

The Facebook format has proven so popular that it is now actively used by more than 845 million people across the globe. That means over 12% of the world's population visit the site.

So what's the appeal?

At the most basic level, social networking services satisfy the human desires to belong to a group, have access to exclusive information and frankly, to mind other people's business.

The most compelling aspect of such sites is the ability to build your own social network, compare it with your friends’ networks and grow your network through contacts made via friends, family and special interest groups.

For example, Facebook can be used to share photos and videos, play games and quizzes, organise events or launch a campaign or petition.

Is Facebook private?

Sign up, make friends, share stuff - it all sounds great, so what can go wrong? Social networking sites such as Facebook have been criticised by some people who believe they encourage 'over-sharing', especially among younger users. Police have warned people to take care when stating their activities and whereabouts on social networking sites.

This all comes down to the privacy settings that Facebook has on offer. The company has made no secret of its desire to make the web more social and its privacy settings reflect this.

Facebook have now simplified their privacy settings, but protecting personal information is now something that mainstream audiences are taking more seriously.

What gets Facebook in the news?

You must be at least 13 to sign up to Facebook, but many young people subscribe claiming that they are older and post false profile pictures. This has been a cause of concern for parents as children may then be approached inappropriately by adults who wish to befriend or 'groom' them.

At 17 Ashleigh Hall was old enough to have a Facebook profile, but was lured to her death by convicted sex offender Peter Chapman on the website. This case led to a successful call to add a 'panic button' to Facebook pages which allows users to identify suspicious behaviour.

There have been many cases of people posting that they’re away from home on Facebook then returning to find that their home has been burgled. One family have been targeted in this way twice and urge others to take care with what they put online.

Less seriously, young people have also been the casualty of Facebook’s option to share your information with everybody when issuing party invitations. A 14 year old girl in Hertfordshire had a nasty shock when 21,000 people RSVP-ed to an invite to her birthday party.

But surely it's not all bad?

Precisely because of its popularity, Facebook is able to mobilise support for all kinds of causes. One couple from Caerphilly in Wales were delighted when their friends used the website to collect £20,000 for their dream wedding.

When 103-year-old Lillian Lowe was been dubbed the ‘oldest’ Facebooker by the Daily Mail she was overwhelmed to receive nearly 1,000 friend requests from all over the world. Lillian enjoys using Facebook to keep up to date with her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

How does Facebook fight crime?

Social networking sites have been used by detectives to track down criminals.  For instance, police in County Down, Northern Ireland have used their Facebook group to successfully recover stolen vehicles.

The high profile case of murdered landscape architect Jo Yeates attracted considerable support from Facebook campaigns both to locate her as a missing person and then to assist in the hunt for her killer.

What can Facebook do for me?

Visit our Social Media Basics course to learn how Facebook and other social networks can work for you.

You can find out more about the social networks Facebook and Twitter and personal safety online by visiting the BBC WebWise guides.

Zoe is the senior producer on WebWise and has produced websites across the BBC for over ten years. Her interests include the use of social media to engage teachers and learners.

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