Braving a new online world

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There are so many reasons for me not to join the Facebook crowd:

I have four friends, and when I want to talk to them, I call. I am so technologically inept, I have trouble operating the TV remote control. I’d rather spend my idle time curled up in bed with a book than hunched over a computer screen.

But for once, I’d like to be ahead of the curve. Baby boomers like me are the fastest growing demographic on the world’s most popular online networking site.

So on Thursday -- the day Facebook officially turned 5 years old -- I signed up. And joined 150 million people who spend, worldwide, 3 billion minutes every day collecting friends; poking, tagging, writing on online walls; and narrating the most mundane moments of their day to an audience of hundreds, or thousands.


Or in my case, an audience of five.


If you’re under 30, you can skip the next paragraph. But If you grew up in the era before call-waiting and color television, you might need a primer on the Facebook phenomenon.

Facebook was launched by a Harvard sophomore as an online network for college students. About four years ago, it expanded to include high schoolers; 18 months ago, it opened to the rest of us

The AARP crowd has been slow to catch on. It’s not for lack of computer savvy. There are as many Internet users over 55 as there are in the 18-to-34 demographic.

But my generation tends to think of networking as making small talk at cocktail parties and exchanging business cards. Facebook junkies network through perpetual “status” updates, pithy messages and photos of their friends, vacations, parties and pets that they have posted on their online walls.

The network is easy enough to join. All you need is an e-mail address. It helps to have acquaintances who already subscribe and are willing to accept your invitation to be your friend. This keeps you from looking unpopular.

That was my first obstacle. My four friends aren’t online.

The Facebook system helps, by scrolling through your e-mail inbox for recognizable names you can add. The only name that turned up on my search was my youngest daughter’s -- the 18-year-old who pitched a fit last year when I tried to sign on to her school’s online monitoring service. I now had access to her list of Facebook friends.


She ignored my online friend request. I messaged again, then threatened to start “friending” people on her list. I wondered, what’s with all these people I don’t know? Like the woman who works for MTV and the middle-aged guy from Minnesota?

My daughter logged on and was mortified when she saw my profile. I’d listed my name, birthday, hometown and relationship status.

“Single??? You can’t put single!! Why’d you put single?” She grabbed her forehead with her hand and began muttering.

It seemed obvious to me. I’m not married. I’m single. But somehow -- at least to a teenage daughter -- that translates to “pathetic middle-age woman on the market” in Facebook-speak.

We went through the available options. Married. Engaged. In a relationship. In an open relationship. It’s complicated.

How about It’s complicated, I suggested, because it clearly is. “That’s even worse,” she insisted; an open door for all sorts of embarrassing conversations about exactly what complications exist.


So I offered a compromise. I’d leave the relationship question blank, so as not to complicate her life, if she would spare me some embarrassment and not use the F-word in public posts that my new Facebook friends would be able to read.

She wouldn’t commit, but I backed down and rescinded my single status. When I signed on again that night, there was a heart next to my name and the message, for all to see: Sandy is no longer single.


This thing displays my every move, I realized. My friends will think I sneaked a wedding in.

And under the announcement, my daughter’s message on my wall: “niice.”


The average Facebook user has 120 friends. By Thursday night, I had five: Alice from work. My oldest daughter. Her boyfriend, Charles. Their friends Courtney and Pat.

As my daughter scrolled through her list for more friends she could send me, I was struck by the irony:

I used to arrange play dates for this child, so she could learn to socialize. Now she was walking me through the process of making friends, lending me hers so I don’t look like a loser online.


I’m operating on my children’s turf now, forced to rely on them for guidance. I tried to teach them social graces; now they’re schooling me on etiquette, Facebook-style:

What to put in my profile and what not to tell. When it’s OK to reject a “friend” request. How to balance the voyeur in me with these new bursts of self-consciousness.

I’m not sure I really want to see the button-down guy from a nearby cubicle posing shirtless on his Facebook wall.

And the growing list of “status” messages from new friends only serves to make me feel guilty for not doing enough:

Stephanie is cleaning her rain gutters. Shawn is at home with her teenagers, making beef stew. Andrew has written two stories for the paper in the time it has taken me to write one.

But I’m trying to buy into the Facebook ethos: Sit back and enjoy life through the eyes of my friends.


Now there are 27 of them.