From the tragic to the trivial, from the mundane to the mortifying, millions of people on Facebook are sharing 25 random facts about themselves.
In the Facebook-spawned version of a chain letter, people are writing lists of "25 Random Things About Me" and then posting them -- and tagging 25 friends to do the same.
All of the 25 random sentences accompanying this article are real, lifted from the "25 Random Things" lists of dozens of Facebook users.
Pendleton native Katie Boyd crafted her list to include both appealing childhood facts ("When I was little I couldn't say 'spider' so I said 'pido.' ") and hilarious current information ("Whenever I am in a basement, I run up the stairs as fast as I can ... thanks to the movie people under the stairs.")
"Those are facts that would not come up in normal conversation," said Boyd.
She said it took her about three weeks after she was tagged -- asked to do a list -- to decide whether to do it, but was inspired by the funny, creative lists written by friends.
She finally went ahead because, she said, "You just want to make people laugh, and it's a great way for people that you don't know too well, for them to get to know who you are."
A Facebook user's list of "25 things" is visible to all the people they have approved to be friends. Although she is aware of the privacy concerns, Boyd said, "In Facebook I feel pretty comfortable, because only my friends can see what I write, not the entire public, whereas on other Web sites anybody can see what you write."
Boyd said she worked to make her list both entertaining and educational. "With all the things going on in the world, it seems nice to have something as silly as this '25 things' list," she said, "but you also definitely do learn some things about people."
John Carocci of Buffalo said he's been surprised and touched by some items his friends have chosen to share through their lists.
"Every single list I've read has had at least three or four things that surprised, moved or impressed me, things that never would have come up in my ordinary interaction with these people," he said. "That was shocking to me, and a big reason why I think this has become larger than other Internet fads."
>The reality of it all
Michael Stefanone, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo who specializes in studying Internet communication, says he has seen such chain-letter list-making sweep Facebook before, "years ago." But the trend of joining others in "disclosing personal things about yourself in a very public way," and then asking your friends to do the same, has caught fire this time, he says, because of the lessons people absorb from reality TV.
"Whether it's 'American Idol' or 'Survivor,' what these shows all have in common is that people are required to reveal things about themselves, whether it's their strategy in a competitive game, or their backstory through interviews," said Stefanone.
A couple of years after reality TV shows skyrocketed in popularity, he said, people who use the Internet started to shift from being mainly "content consumers" -- passive readers or viewers of what other people produce -- to "content producers," who entertain themselves and their friends by writing and posting photos and videos on networking sites.
People who watch a lot of reality TV "spend more time on Facebook, they have larger networks and they are more promiscuous in their friending behavior," said Stefanone. "Up to 15 percent of their networks are people they have never met face-to-face."
So being tagged to write and post "25 Random Things," said Stefanone, is "just another venue to engage in this nondirected disclosive behavior."
"The issue of disclosure online is something I struggle with in general, and particularly on Facebook," said Carocci, whose Facebook friend list includes "relatives, people I went to school with [elementary school, high school and college], co-workers past and present, my current boss, people I socialize with, people involved in the same activities/organizations as me, people I barely know and people I have a history with."
Because he is keenly aware that "all of them have the same access to whatever I post, regardless of our relationship," Carocci said, "Before I post anything I make sure it's appropriate for anyone on my friend list, from my sister-in-law's 14-year-old sister to my closest and dearest friends."
But not everyone is as careful, said Stefanone.
"People who are doing this are aware that other people can access their lists, but they are still engaging in this behavior. This has become such a mainstream venue of social exchange, and it is uninhibited."
>Next level of networking
Although it remains wildly popular among students, an increasing number of the estimated 150 million people worldwide who are enrolled in the free social network are past college age.
Facebook started in 2004 when a Harvard student used the online photos and profiles of fellow students to create a campuswide directory of students. The idea rapidly spread to other Ivy League schools, then to colleges across the country. In September 2006, Facebook opened its membership to people outside college campuses. Since then, it has exploded in use among older people, who use Facebook to keep up with extended families and to get back in touch with former classmates and co-workers.
Facebook users can join networks based on hobbies or interests, as well as places they have lived, visited, attended school or worked. Users can post "updates" telling friends what they are doing or thinking about.
Like many people, Carocci said, "I spend a lot of time thinking about my status updates. I don't put just, 'I'm having a milkshake.' That's my own desperate need for attention," he said, laughing.
"I didn't necessarily enjoy the exercise, because a truly random list about my life would have been a gigantic bore," Carocci said, "so I tried to come up with things that were interesting and fun.
"And there's a bit of the 'Facebook Vanity' where you put things out there that you want people to know about you. I tried to mix it up and include things I'm proud of ("Doing volunteer work for Operation Smile") and things I'm not so proud of ("I once drove 115 on the Thruway for 10 minutes. Stupid!")".
While Carocci said reading the "25 Random Things" lists of his Facebook friends has definitely helped me think of them as more than just 'my co-worker' or 'that guy from high school.' They're three-dimensional people with interests and skills and experiences and dreams that I have no idea about."
ON THE WEB: For examples of other challenges that are sweeping Facebook, check out the PopStand blog at www.buffalonews.com/popstand