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To be, or not to be: Facebook 'is' is no longer

To be, or not to be: Now Facebook users can decide.
/ Source: The Associated Press

To be, or not to be: Now Facebook users can decide.

For years, members of the popular online hangout Facebook have been able to compose one-liners called "status updates" to tell friends what's going on with them, as in, "Jessica is craving egg and cheese on an English muffin."

Each update started with the member's name and "is," followed by a blank box. This led to tongue-in-cheek workarounds (say, "Jessica is egg and cheesed"). Others ignored "to be" completely and followed "is" with a second active verb.

To the delight of several hundred thousand Facebook users who joined protest groups online, the "is" quietly disappeared last Thursday, making "Jessica is wants an egg and cheese muffin" a thing of the past. Users now supply their own verb.

Facebook claims 58 million active members. In comparison, the largest anti-"is" group, "Petition to Get Rid of 'is' from Facebook Status Update!" was 182,015 strong when its founder, Ahmed Shama, pronounced the "is" dead.

In an interview, Shama, a 29-year-old technology consultant who lives in Irvine, Calif., said he was half joking when he started the group with his brother and invited friends to join. But supporters all over the world wrote to him — and not just because they were tired of gerunds.

Many who speak languages other than English complained Facebook "was imposing a very English-specific way of updating your status," said Shama.

Anti-"is" groups formed in Turkish and even Norwegian. Facebook hasn't translated its site into languages other than English yet, but a spokeswoman said that's on the agenda for early 2008.

Reeling from public outcry against a viral advertising effort, in which it published information about what members were doing and buying online, Facebook declined to speak about this issue. The company had hinted in November that it would drop the verb. It began by letting programmers write code to suppress the "is" if another verb was given.

Twelve thousand people have left Shama's group since last week, and he, too, is turning his attention elsewhere.

"I try to use my Facebook profile to create groups that raise social consciousness among people, whereas this was more for fun," he said, though he acknowledged the "is" was his biggest success so far.

"Nothing came even close."