It was a sunny day in August 2007 when my rocky relationship with Facebook began. I had a cancellation and some extra time to tackle the overdue managed-care forms on my desk. Humanity’s greatest invention for procrastination came to the rescue, and I went online. I’d heard that Facebook, with its 30 million users, was mostly for college kids, but even collegiate slackers looked better to me than a sheaf of soul-destroying forms.
So I went to www.facebook.com, created a free account, followed the instructions, and invited a few colleagues to be “friends.” I eagerly waited to see what would happen next. And waited. Nothing! No response to my message in the cyber-bottle. Had I done it right? Even though I’d been sparing with personal information, could those millions of Facebookers somehow just tell that I was unyoung and unhip? Should my feelings be hurt?
Four suspense-filled days later, I was rewarded, like a teenager who finally gets asked to the prom (back in the days when teenagers “dated”), with a message from John, a 32-year-old therapist friend, who wrote: “I feel bloated today.” You what? Why are you telling me this? Do you think I care? I added a few more friends, one of whom invited me to play a game called Bejeweled (whatever that was)—which I ignored.
Thus began the deluge. An uncountable number of friends invited me to join, play, poke, nudge, buy, and celebrate things like Farmville, Pieces of Flair, River Cleanup, Boomer Nation, Six Degrees of Separation, and Multilevel Marketing Made Easy. Then there were the inane and annoying quizzes on every dumb topic you never imagined: “Who were you in a past life? Gandhi, Babe Ruth, Buddha, Michelangelo, the Marquis de Sade, or Attila the Hun?”
People I didn’t know, strange people, people with weird interests and edgy ideas, people who kind of gave me the creeps, showed up on my homepage. Where did they come from? Why were they writing to me? What did the woman who shared the news that she was cursing a big zit on her face want from me? Certainly on any top-five list of most idiotic messages was one from the therapist friend: “I’m watching my dogs lick their bowls clean.” Get a life, buddy!
Strengths and Liabilities
For anybody who’s just woken from a protracted coma, Facebook is the ubiquitous Internet presence created just five years ago by Harvard University sophomore Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room. What started as a fun project for 15 friends has grown to 300 million users, with—surprisingly—people over 50 now the fastest-growing segment. Facebook, with Twitter and LinkedIn, is part of the social-networking movement online. In contrast to traditional websites or blogs, where one person writes content for others to read, users on social-networking sites generate most of the content themselves. Users post messages, pictures, videos, and audios detailing almost anything about their day—from the tragic to the sublime, but more often from the shallowly trivial to the deeply banal. Friends reconnect with relatives, current friends, friends and acquaintances from years gone by, wannabe friends. Facebook can cause real-life drama, as when old lovers suddenly appear on a spouse’s friend list. Once you register an account on Facebook, you can invite anyone you know to become your friend; as soon as they accept your invitation, they’ll see whatever you post.
This is at once a great strength and a liability. Catching up with friends you haven’t seen in years can undeniably be great fun, but Facebook has a serious boundary problem. In fact, there are no boundaries unless you set them! Everything you post can be seen by people you don’t know (“friends of friends,” and even “friends of friends of friends”)—which is why all those unknown people were showing up on my page. Even worse, people you do know often see what you post, even what you most certainly would rather they didn’t. A therapist friend was horrified to get comments from three former coworkers and his current clinical supervisor after he’d posted “Off to Xanax land. Whee!” To a therapist trained to respect strict personal boundaries, this feels like the ultimate dysfunctional family system.
Two months after joining, I encountered every therapist’s Facebook nightmare: a therapy client of mine invited me to be a friend. Anyone can search for their therapist’s name in the large white searchbox that appears in the upper right-hand corner of every Facebook page. What to do? I ignored the request—which is the best thing to do with a past client. With current clients, just say that your policy is not to (be)friend clients on Facebook. After much criticism, Facebook eventually changed its privacy settings so users would have tighter control over who sees their posts—but to this day, many people don’t know what their privacy settings are, or how to change them.
It is possible to maintain good boundaries on Facebook, if you follow four simple rules:
1) Go to Privacy Settings and review every item carefully. Facebook now provides 17 variables you can set.
2) Segment your list of friends into Personal, Family, and Business acquaintances. This way, you can post things that pertain to each group, and reduce the amount of irrelevant posts the other groups see.
3) Don’t accept a friend request unless you know the person.
4) If friends’ posts are too frequent, boring, annoying or upsetting to you in any way, you can “defriend” them, and they’ll be gone from your Facebook experience. If for some reason you want to keep them on your Friend list but can’t stomach their chatter, you can hide their posts.
I kept going on Facebook and gradually began seeing more and more people showing up there that I actually knew, people I really liked! What a kick! I finally got the whole Facebook deal. The positive, healthy part is that it’s like a huge, ongoing, endless, party, with all the favorite people from your entire life potentially showing up. In today’s hyperpaced world, where just getting together for lunch with an old friend can take weeks and require the back-and-forth negotiations of a major-nation trade agreement, Facebook is a cyberspace block party, a digital coffee klatch, supplying the many missing links that make the difference between a bunch of isolated monads and a genuine interactive community. At the top of every Facebook homepage, a big rectangle with the bold title News Feed invites you to reveal something personal by asking “What’s on your mind?” Staying up-to-date on the nuances of everyday life can give a sense of moving through life together.
And by the way, Facebook is one hell of a great way to sell something! In a medium known for impatience and micro attention spans, Facebook users spend an average of 20 minutes on the site per visit. When I learned this, my impatience with the lack of intellectual profundity in my friends’ posts faded as my inner marketer began rubbing his hands in glee. Three hundred million people spending 20 minutes at a pop is as good as it gets in terms of online attention.
There are three ways to turn this attention into referrals for your practice:
(1) Your profile page
You can create a business profile separate from (or instead of) a personal profile, and it can include your website, office address, phone number, and list of services. Putting this information on Facebook gives you plenty of searchable keywords within the system—which is important because many people now do all their Internet searches from within Facebook, not from a search engine—and a well-constructed profile will show up in an ordinary Google search also.
(2) A fan page
The second thing you can do is create a fan page on Facebook. I was turned off by the term fan, which sounded cheesily entertainment-oriented and not professional for a therapist. But the reality is that many businesses are now using fan pages as a way to create a miniwebsite right within Facebook. With a fan page listing your practice information and services, you can again be found in a search within Facebook and Google. The main difference? Much less competition on Facebook (so far), since few therapists have created these types of pages.
(3) Pay-per-click ads
The third and most direct way to promote your practice is with pay-per-click ads. I was familiar with this type of ad, having been a Google AdWords user for several years. To my delight, I discovered that Facebook pay-per-click ads are much easier to set up, provide a more precise targeting of potential clients, and tend to be less expensive than Google AdWords. For example, let’s say your ideal client is a married woman between the ages of 35 and 55 with a college degree who lives within 10 miles of Chicago. Facebook tells us there are 54,000 women on Facebook who fit this exact profile. We can create an ad promoting our services that will show up only on these women’s homepages.
By creating this type of ad, I quickly added 10 referrals a month to my therapy practice, at a cost of only $30 per referral. The ads paid for themselves on the first session, and the rest has been pure profit.
I’m still puzzled about why some of my friends think I care what they had for lunch, but now that I understand privacy settings, I really enjoy going on Facebook for a quick update about what people I know and care about are up to. And with the added bonus of steady referrals to my practice, I’m happy to say that Facebook and I have become friends at last.
Joe Bavonese, PhD, is the director of the Relationship Institute in Michigan and the co-director of Uncommon Practices, a service that helps psychotherapists create their ideal practice.