by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

When J.C.R. Licklider was working to develop ARPANET, one of the first large computer networks, he coined the term “virtual community” to describe his vision of how computer communications could link people together. In a virtual community, community members might be geographically separated but share the same interests, goals and aspirations. Through computer networks, virtual community members can work together to make the real world a better place.

Fast-forward 30 years, and Facebook is the way most people younger than 25 communicate with their friends. Moreover, it is also how they make new friends. E-mail, listservers and bulletin boards are passé in the online world of today. Social networks like Facebook have become the place where virtual communities are formed.

For those of us older than 40 and on Facebook —there is even a special Facebook group by that name for us old fogies — Facebook is more like a weekly happy hour than a means of social existence. Personally, Facebook has been a great way to reconnect with old high school and college friends, to find out where they landed and what they are doing. And it has also let me get to know some of my existing acquaintances a whole lot better.

One of my colleagues of nearly 10 years has always fit the stereotype of the shy engineer: You know when he likes you because he stares at your shoes instead of his own when he talks. But on Facebook he is ready to open up. Turns out that he loves Pink Floyd, has two children, eats often at Mexican restaurants and uploads a new photo to Facebook about every other day. He also sends messages, comments on my messages and is a very outgoing person online. We have gotten to be much better friends though our online interaction.

There is certainly nothing wrong with getting to know people better, but when does sharing information online with your friends and colleagues become too much? Or, as some call it, “oversharing.”

The latest example of Facebook oversharing comes in the form of notes where people list “25” things about themselves. The online equivalent of a chain letter, one answers the 25 questions listed and then tags 25 people who are supposed to now answer the same questions and tag another 25 people. Etc., etc. Of course, all of your Facebook friends now get to learn how you answered the questions. And these lists of questions help answer some of the most pressing things you need to know about your online friends, such as: “What is your favorite lunch meat?”, “Do you still have your tonsils?”, and “What is your favorite smell?”

Do I really want to know such details about several hundred online friends? And will I still want to be friends with them after reading their answers?

Perhaps a more important question for the future of our society is: When does this oversharing cross the line between being social and being personal or intimate? Maybe this is just one of the cultural differences between the online world and the physical world. In the online world, people seem to share things about themselves that they would never dream of disclosing F2F (face-to-face for those Luddites who are still reading along). Many cultures have different definitions of personal space, and perhaps the Facebook culture is made up of a bunch of “close talkers.”

Missouri-born anthropologist Edward Hall first created the concept of proxemics, or personal spaces, to describe how people define, guard and relate to the physical space around themselves. Hall described various spaces in which we interact in “reaction bubbles” of varying distances around us. In the United States, 25 feet to 12 feet out is public space, 12 feet to 4 feet is social space, 4 feet to 1.5 feet is our personal space and less than 1.5 feet is intimate space.

As a friend, stranger or family member approaches us, we will allow them to cross into the space that is appropriate for the relationship, but as they attempt to cross a boundary into a space that is not appropriate, we will usually move away. If you have ever watched someone from another culture chase someone around the room at a social gathering, you have seen reaction bubbles in action. In some cultures the bubble of personal space is just much closer.

But lacking any physicality, Facebook and other online worlds don’t provide an easy means of backing away from those casual friends who enter your personal space. Some people post status messages — again for the Luddites, a status message tells your friends what you are doing or feeling right now — that include enough personal details about their emotional life to make one cringe. There is a definitely a Jerry Springer type of voyeurism that comes along with the Facebook experience.

Whether Facebook and social networking can deliver on the promise of virtual communities or only provide the cheap thrills of virtual clique remains to be seen. Either way, the next generation is learning to develop relationships in a whole new way.