Lester Holt looks at 'The Facebook Obsession' on CNBC

On Thursday, Jan. 6, in a one-hour special called "The Facebook Obsession," CNBC takes a look at the social media site that has infiltrated many aspects of modern life and whose founding was the subject of a recent feature film, "The Social Network."

The host for the special is NBC News correspondent Lester Holt, who uses the microblogging service Twitter "sparingly" but has yet to create a Facebook presence.

For those that aren't familiar with it, Facebook.com allows people to connect as "friends" with actual friends, relatives, professional contacts and even people they don't know at all. There are also fan pages devoted to actors, TV shows, political figures, and a wide variety of goods and services, which people can "like."

Users can share photos, links and videos, use various applications to do everything from figure out what city they should live in to which cartoon character they most resemble, send greeting cards, publicize events and causes, and indicate their marital status and what sorts of relationships they are seeking. Some of those photos and comments could come back to haunt users, whether it's something they posted or that their "friends" posted.

"People have criticized Facebook for privacy issues," Holt says, "but the heart of it is our willingness to share.

"I smile at myself, thinking, 'God, five or six years ago, as a country, we were debating the Patriot Act, Big Brother and listening in on phone calls, and you can forget that. Now we're just giving that away.' "

Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg was recently named Time magazine's Person of the Year, also offers a worldwide platform of the sort formerly reserved only to book publishers, magazines and newspapers, which bypasses the traditional gatekeepers of media. One could argue blogs also did that, but a Facebook page is exponentially easier to create and find than a blog, and once found, connecting is as easy as a click.

What politician could resist something like that? The Obama campaign used Facebook effectively -- and successfully -- during the 2008 presidential contest, and the White House continues to employ social media to reach out to voters (and the CNBC special takes a look at that).

Recently former President George W. Bush did a Facebook chat with Zuckerberg, to promote his new book.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, has also become a prolific Facebook user outside the structure of a formal campaign. She employs its "Notes" function to comment on events in the news and write what are essentially position papers, sent worldwide without ever having to talk to a reporter or be filtered through an editorial board.

No doubt other politicians will follow Palin's lead on Facebook. All of this presents fresh challenges for journalists.

"It affects the media," says Holt, "in that we become wise to it. We report what they say on the Facebook page, and then we have to find our own ways to fill in some of the blanks.

"When you're Tweeting or Facebooking, it can be a one-way conversation, unchallenged. It just raises the bar for us, in terms that we've got to continue to find ways to hold people's feet to the fire and challenge them on some level."

As to whether he's come to any conclusions about Facebook, Holt says, "It's here; it's real; it's not a flash in the pan. ... It is truly redefining the way that we communicate."