Last week’s Facebook IPO put Mark Zuckerberg front and center in the cultural debate about the value of social networking — again. This time, the discussion has revolved around the actual monetary value of Facebook, particularly since the company’s stock price started to drop (which happened almost immediately). There are lots of reasons for this drop, most of which are either too complicated or too ridiculous to really matter to me. What interests me is the idea that we can value social networking with a dollar sign.

I don’t think that really works, honestly. I think the value is more complex than that.

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I use it both personally and professionally, and while I’m thrilled with the way it has grown the community for my blog, I am not always so happy about the way my personal connections play out. Then again, what irks me about the personal side is, typically, the same things that irk me about real-life interactions with people, which makes it hard for me to say that those Facebook friendships aren’t valuable. They’re annoying, sure, but people are annoying; it’s what makes them human.

So how has Facebook added value to our lives?

This week, my friend Rita wrote about how Facebook has ruined the high school class reunion. Why go to your reunion, she asked, if you’re already in touch with all the people who still matter to you? You’ll be spending time and money to hang out with people you’re already talking to on a regular basis, via the Internet. Or, alternatively, you’ll be investing that time and money in the people you could care less about, the ones you have not bothered to seek out online. And what’s the point of that?

She’s on to something, I think.

For many of us — particularly Facebook users of my generation (40-ish Gen Xers), Facebook is the new reunion. Our online community coexists with our real-life community and fills the void that certain social events, like class reunions, used to fill — in cheaper, easier way.

So how do you value that? You can’t, really.  Not in any way that works for Wall Street.

Of course, that kind of virtual meeting place mentality doesn’t work for everyone. My dad was asking recently about getting on Facebook; he’s in his 70s and is very tech literate and interested in the idea of social media. “Do I need Facebook?” he said. I thought about it for a while and then suggested all the ways he might benefit from joining Facebook. “Eh,” he said with a shrug. “None of that sounds very interesting to me.” He’s already as wired as he wants to be — he exchanges emails and texts with my brother and I on a regular basis, as well as having an old-fashioned phone call once or twice a week. The rest of the stuff on Facebook is just noise to him.

So what is the value of Facebook? If you’re an advertiser or a business, you calculate the value in numbers of potential customers and the dollars they will spend. But for most actual Facebook users, the value exists somewhere else — in a sense of connection and community that we’re losing in our busy, plugged-in lives.

How do you make that community work for your brand? By interacting with Facebook users in a personal way, and by becoming an important part of their online community. You want to be the friend they interact with every day — not that jerk from high school that they’re still avoiding, all these years later.

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