Users flock to social networking site


Judging by the attention it’s been getting in the mainstream media lately, social networking seems to have come into its own. No longer are Facebook and MySpace the isolated bastion of college students. No longer is Twitter just the sound a bird makes for those who don’t consider themselves hard-core geeks.

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Nowadays, the greatest growth in the user base of Facebook – which started as a project at Harvard and, until late 2006, was open only to college students – and MySpace is in those 55 or older.

According to Internet tracking service Hitwise, the two sites saw a 27 percent year-over-year growth in use by those 55 or older from February 2008 to February 2009. Those 23 to 44 and those 45 to 54 were the second-highest growth sectors for the two sites, with 23 and 21 percent growth in the last year, respectively. (MySpace’s growth actually slowed in 2008, down 28 percent.)

So, what is drawing users to Facebook (www.facebook.com) and MySpace (www.myspace.com) by the millions, resulting in 149 percent growth in Facebook usership alone since February 2008? Well, chances are if you don’t already have an account on one or both of the sites, it’s likely you soon will, simply to help keep up with friends and family, classmates and business associates.

The latter, falling into the category of professional networking, may be one of the biggest reasons why older visitors are flocking to Facebook these days. Retirees are using the site to keep up with former co-workers and to keep involved in their formerly full-time work part-time, as well as keeping up with the kids and grandkids. And their growing tech savvy is allowing them to do so.

Additionally, the growing adoption of Facebook as a public platform by media outlets, businesses and pop-culture figures encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to interact with their favorite shows, hosts, artists and brand names, all online and in one central place.

New users lured in by old friends

Now, I have to admit that, at 37, I missed most of the initial frenzy about Facebook and MySpace. I was far out of college when Facebook became the place for college students to interact online, and MySpace was trending even younger than its original populace of music-loving college students when I first got intrigued by the social networking phenomenon. A brief flirtation with blogging had left me world-weary of the notion of sharing my life online.

So I came to Facebook as many people in their 30s and 40s do these days: looking to re-connect with an old friend from my college days.

A Google search led to the name of an old boyfriend of my missing friend, who I thought might help us reconnect. It turned out he had a Facebook page – or at least it looked like the same guy. I wasn’t sure. But Facebook’s privacy settings don’t let random Internet viewers get much information from a particular person’s Facebook page – none if they’ve got their privacy settings set high – so, you have to have your own Facebook account first.

That’s the hook that lures in a lot of new Facebook users, it seems. They’re looking up an old friend, trying to find people to invite to their high-school reunion, get invited to view a cousin’s Facebook page to see pictures of the kids or grandkids or want to see what a favorite author or politician is up to. If they’re interested enough, they sign up for an account, and then they start getting invitations to become “friends.”

The definition of the word “friends” can vary a lot in normal usage. You have the people you spend time with regularly now, the people you grew up with but haven’t seen since high school, college roommates, ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, acquaintances, friends of friends, people you bump into at meetings and social events, co-workers past and present, the guy who mows your lawn or the woman who runs that shop you go to all the time… and on and on…

When it comes to Facebook, you’ll find that “friends” can mean any of those things and more. The key with “friending” – yes, “friend” is now a verb – someone on Facebook is whether or not you want to see what they post on their page and whether or not you want them to see what you post on yours. Most users have their privacy settings set to permit both, if you’re “friends,” and to let you only see their name, small profile picture and a few basic facts (such as your home town) if you don’t.

“Friend” someone, and you’ll generally be able to see their posted photos, who their Facebook friends are, how well they scored on a wide range of quizzes, games and widgets that Facebook permits to be installed as applications on users’ profiles, the comments they’ve made in response to their friends’ postings and a rolling log of their Facebook “status.”

What’s on your mind

The status entry is one of the major elements of actively using Facebook. If you use it, use it judiciously, advocates of Facebook etiquette often remind newcomers, as critics complain of an increasing trend of narcissism suggested by too much focus on “me.” Just remember that everyone on your friends list is likely going to see what you typed – and a lot of them will see it in real time.

The Facebook status has traditionally taken the form of “So and so is…” where “so and so” is your name and you just typed in what you were doing or thinking. More recently, Facebook dropped the “is…” prompt in favor of “What’s on your mind?” But your friends still see “So and so…” whatever you typed.

You could be “checking e-mail,” “baking cookies” or “pondering how to take over the world.” Just consider if you want all of your Facebook friends – some of whom may not know you all that well – to know you’re taking a shower, leaving for work, eating a tuna sandwich for lunch, killing a few minutes at work, headed home for the day, going out for drinks with friends, taking your car for a tune-up or any of the hundreds of things we do every day.

Anyone who actively uses Facebook is certainly at risk of becoming a source of TMI: too much information. I grew wary of that with the blogging trend, and I now try to keep my Facebook status updates down to one or two a day. I haven’t had any complaints yet.

On the other hand, for better or worse, Washington Post food columnist Kim O’Donnel recently wrote that her husband of two years had inadvertently revealed that he preferred automatic drip coffee to her gourmet preparation, via a Facebook comment. It’s amazing what people let slip on Facebook.

Even if you’re not revealing too much of your daily life and inner dialogue via your status updates, avoid posting too often, since you can easily take over your friends’ news feeds and make it hard for them to find out what’s happening with their other friends. Yes, they can adjust how often your posts appear in their feed, by clicking on the settings function next to those posts, but it’s better not to become an annoyance in the first place.

New Facebook users are also frequently cautioned against using Facebook’s “poke” function on other people’s pages. What may have initially been used as a quick way to ask “Hey, what are you up to?” or to see if a stranger was interested in more contact is now just generally regarded as creepy or annoying. (I admit I found even a few friend requests from strangers to be more than a little creepy.)

If you want to make a new friend, don’t poke – send an invitation or message them to let them know who you are. If you want to know what a friend’s up to, post a message on their wall – the place on their page when friends can leave comments – or send a private message via their page.

There’s plenty of other tips for new Facebook users online at http://www.switched.com/2009/02/16/25-things-you-should-know-about-faceb..., which I used to brush up before I started actively using the site. It’s pretty good advice, if you’re thinking about taking the plunge.

Getting friendly

Another concern for new Facebook users is just who they should or should not “friend.” Well known these days is the horror faced by younger users when they get a friend request from a parent.

For a business that started off as a college networking service, it can understandably be a little off-putting when you’re no longer just getting updates on where your classmates and dorm buddies are going for an evening of fun.

So, parents and professional contacts should be able to understand that some people they request as friends on Facebook may want to keep that slice of their personal life private. Don’t be put off if a friend request is denied or ignored. There may be a good reason for it, and it could be that you would have preferred to have been ignored when you’re suddenly getting more personal information than you wanted to have.

For those who are facing such requests, the New York Times offers advice at http://www.nytimes.com/external/readwriteweb/2009/01/30/30readwriteweb-h....

You may also find friend requests from your peers go ignored as well, since some don’t use their Facebook page and therefore don’t add friends, and others only friend their close friends and/or family members. With Facebook going out of its way to encourage you to invite everyone you’ve ever known – even peripherally – to be your friend, there are bound to be some people who just aren’t that into you.

Facebook will encourage your friends to recommend other friends for you, and it will offer up the names of people who went to the same high school or college and people who once worked at the same business – even if that was years before or after you were there. You don’t have to accept these recommendations, and those people won’t necessarily want to friend you, either.

While some people seem to complete to have the most Facebook friends, most find it more valuable to be more selective. (You can quietly un-friend someone later, if you want. It’s possible they won’t even notice you’re gone, if they have plenty of friends.)

My personal policy is to accept all friend invitations I get from people I do or did know at one time. Most of the people Facebook recommends don’t request me as friends, as they don’t know me or hardly did at all. If someone goes to the trouble of friending me, and I know them, I don’t have much problem with them having access to what little personal information they will see as a result, since I keep my Facebook page professional-friendly.

I don’t often request to be friends with others, either, since I figure people who want to friend me will be likely to come forward on their own. In the last couple months, I’ve been friended by one of my close friends from high school (with whom I now have a friendly rivalry in one of Facebook’s built-in games), a friend from elementary school through high school and my cousin, none of whom I’ve had much, or any, contact with in the last 15 years.

Getting back in touch with them, catching up peripherally with a number of former classmates and getting a little more personal with a few co-workers has been a pleasant turn of events, all from having joined Facebook. And as my high school graduating class nears its 20th reunion, I’m finding more and more of my classmates are getting in touch.

Caution a watchword for privacy and safety

Now, those who are leery of how well Facebook will protect their private information can also visit http://www.switched.com/2009/02/07/how-to-keep-your-facebook-activities-... for some tips. But the bottom line is that Facebook’s privacy settings let you selectively pick who is getting certain bits of the information you post online.

If you don’t want strangers to see your page, you can set it so only friends can do so. If you only want certain friends to see your posted photos, you can set up groups to allow or disallow from access to certain parts of your profile. And if you want fewer updates from certain friends, you can set that as well.

But you should still be cautious about what you post online. A 16-year-old British girl was recently fired after calling her job “boring” on her Facebook page. The mother of murdered toddler Caylee Anthony has found her Facebook-posted pictures potentially being used as character-related evidence against her in her upcoming trial for the murder.

An Ohio teacher’s aide recently had her conviction upheld on charges of allowing minors to possess alcohol – charges that were based on photos of her at her home with teenage friends of her son, who were holding bottles of vodka, where the photos were later posted to Facebook and discovered by a school counselor who routinely surveys students’ pages.

Never post anything online that you don’t want everyone to potentially have access to. Embarrassing photos, grouchy comments and quips that might sound bad when taken out of context are key things to avoid, but you have to also be leery of friends posting such items – and even “tagging” you as being in them and thus connecting them to your account.

Facebook requires users to use their real name when creating an account. While you can certainly get around that – they don’t require proof of your identity – you’ll find it easier to hook up with people you know if you use your real identity and easier to keep your online identity straight if everyone who knows you online at least knows you by the same name.

That means those with a separate online persona from their real-life identity may have to keep two accounts, just to keep two sets of friends and personal information separate and safe.

Note also that online harassment and bullying have not been uncommon on social networking sites. A 13-year-old Missouri girl, Megan Meier, committed suicide last year after having been taken in by a fake MySpace profile for a teenage boy that had been created by a former friend’s mother and was used to contact her.

The woman, her daughter and an employee allegedly used the account to conduct a pretend romantic relationship with the girl, only to harshly drop her, leading to her suicide. She has faced criminal charges in the case, focused on having allegedly committed fraud in creating the false identity in violation of the MySpace member agreement.

Other users of social networks have found themselves in receipt of apparent emergency pleas from people they know, saying they needed cash sent overseas right away to get them home safely. Hijacked accounts and duplicated identities have led to some people sending those requested monies to overseas scammers when the real friends were home and safe all along.

No social networking site is safe from predators, it seems. MySpace evicted 29,000 convicted sex offenders in a recent sweep that compare official registration lists with its own database. Facebook has also removed thousands from its own rolls. Both sites prohibit sex offenders from having accounts, but that hasn’t stopped them from signing up and, in some cases, contacting minors.

Facebook has recently faced a spate of “rogue applications” that allege to be recommended by Facebook friends or warn of virus infestation, only to install themselves on the unwary user’s computer and gather personal information or take it over for nefarious purposes.

Facebook users should be just as wary of installing applications from the site as they are of opening and installing software attachments – double-check that the friend’s recommendation is legitimate and that a warning isn’t a known hoax. MySpace has also experienced some security issues of its own. Both sites are working to keep on top of the threat.

Join in, become a Coastal Point ‘fan’

Now, I must admit that my use of MySpace has been limited. MySpace’s initial role as a home for bands and their fans has since led it to become more of a place for teenagers to do their social networking. As such, it’s interest for me personally is limited, except in finding an occasional bit of information on a local band.

But if you have teenagers, you’ll likely have seen the heavily personalized, music-heavy pages that oddly resemble the old-school personal Web pages of 10 years ago.

It’s not likely this spot is going to appeal to this latest wave of older social networkers, who have been flocking to Facebook to hook up with professional contacts, family members and old school friends, but its purpose is still similar. And if you’re big on independent and local music, perusing some MySpace pages – and even setting up an account to keep track of some favorites – could still be well worth your while.

Facebook and MySpace have become the backbone of the social networking trend. If you haven’t tried them, you may want to give them a shot this week and see who you connect, or re-connect, with.

You can also take part in the latest Facebook trend: becoming a “fan.” Fans are like friends, but instead of connecting with regular people, you “fan” the Facebook “Pages” of businesses, musicians, authors, TV shows, etc. That way, you can easily keep up to date on what that entity is doing, as well as let your friends know what you like.

We recently set up a Coastal Point “Page” on Facebook, where each Thursday we’ll be giving you a glimpse into the week’s headlines, as well as a look at our front-page photo, and giving you the chance to interact with other Facebook users via discussions. Just search for “Coastal Point newspaper” on Facebook, and become a fan. (We’ve got more Facebook-related features in the works, so stay tuned.)

If having your own personal page on one of these sites doesn’t appeal, don’t despair. Next week, we’ll look at some other aspects of social networking, with Twitter, social bookmarking sites and social news sites.