Megan Gill

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ROBBIE MCCLARAN FOR TIME

Megan Gill with friends at her home in Portland, Oregon, December 1, 2006. Megan put up a notice of an upcoming event on her Facebook page to invite her friends to "come be in a photo for TIME magazine." Eighteen friends were photographed.

When Megan Gill broke up with her boyfriend in November, it wasn't easy, but she gritted her teeth and did the inevitable: she changed her relationship status on her Facebook page. "I knew there would be a flurry of annoying questions about what happened that I didn't want to answer," she says. "But it was the fastest way for it to be over and done with. Besides, if these people are supposed to be your friends, and care about you, then why keep it a secret?"

Gill, 22, a senior at the University of Portland, has a lot of friends—708, according to her Facebook page. Facebook is a social-networking website that has become—for many people, some of whom are even old enough to see R-rated movies—a way of doing what people used to do by gossiping and talking on the phone, but a lot more efficiently and publicly. You can post photos on your Facebook page, personal information, news about yourself, anything at all. If you want to be Megan's friend or have pretty much any social interaction with her, you're going to want to go through Facebook. She's a double major in special education and English, so she's busy, but she checks in with the site at least twice a day, often 10 times that.

She'll post random updates to her profile just to let everyone know how she is: "Megan is so over first semester," "Megan is bummed about the election results," "Megan is tired of letting people down." As she puts it, "Facebook is my generation's way of picking up the telephone." It also does things the phone can't. "If you want to organize something," Megan says, "it's much simpler to send a message through Facebook than leave 20 voice mails." She doesn't know how anything got done on college campuses before Facebook.

Clearly, social-networking sites can create and maintain relationships that wouldn't have existed otherwise. But can they also attenuate relationships? Can Facebook be a way to avoid dealing with people face to face? Gill's answer has a whiff of intergenerational snobbism. "If anything, my friends and I are more in touch than was ever possible before," she says. "Older people had handwritten letters or called each other or whatever. I mean, really, we have a much more convenient way of doing things."

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—Reported by Jeremy Caplan and Kathleen Kingsbury/New York, Susan Jakes/Beijing, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Grant Rosenberg/Paris and Bryan Walsh/Seoul