I'm fiftysomething, and I'm joining Facebook. You got a problem with that?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
March 8 2007 6:10 PM

Facebook for Fiftysomethings

I'm unfriendly, solitary, and 30 years older than everyone else on the site. But could social networking work for me anyway?

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Facebook and other social-networking sites such as MySpace get lots of bad press from people in my age group. Those too old to have profiles on these sites love to denounce them: What's with all the self-exhibition and ceaseless connecting? Don't these kids know that future employers will read their idiotic adolescent thoughts? Aren't they just attracting cyberperverts?

But the anxiety older people feel about social-networking sites stripping away the privacy of the younger generation and leaving them vulnerable to whoever is on the other end of the equipment is nothing novel. In When Old Technologies Were New, a history of the social effects of electricity at the end of the 19th century, University of Pennsylvania professor Carolyn Marvin writes that the same concerns were raised by the original social-networking instrument, the telephone. Marvin recounts a telephone joke from 1906. A woman answers the phone and is asked by a suitor if she'll marry him. "Of course I'll marry you!" she replies, then adds, "Who is calling, please?"

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Despite the slightly hysterical tone of today's news reports, three Michigan State University professors in a study of Facebook find only positive things to say about it. They convinced me that it is the greatest breakthrough for improving social interactions since the invention of deodorant. As they point out, when students move from high school to college, it allows them to keep constant tabs on former classmates instead of naturally drifting apart. Also, before Facebook, when you met someone who might have potential as a friend or lover, you had to make yourself vulnerable seeing if the interest was returned. You were forced to do embarrassing things like make conversation, followed by trying to get a phone number or e-mail address. But now all that's necessary is the most cursory, name-exchanging encounter. Then you can go back to your room, look up the person's Facebook profile (Is he a Republican? Is she available?) and decide if you want to be "friends."

Facebook also brings efficiencies to awkward relationship milestones. It has a service called News Feed, which updates everyone on your network as to, say, changes in your relationship status. It was through News Feed that a friend of my college-student niece discovered her boyfriend had reset his relationship status to "single." Another of her friends, after going out on a few dates with a fellow student, got the news on News Feed that he considered himself no longer single.

 I finally realized that while I was too uncomfortable to friend students, I did know faculty members at several universities—surely they would be Facebook-savvy. The first one I tried was the director of a journalism fellowship that I had at Stanford 17 years ago. He had a Facebook page which consisted of no photo (Jim, it's called Facebook), little information, and four friends. I sent him a friend request, and he accepted it but said in a message back that he never used the site. I remembered that a few years after my fellowship, he came to Washington and at lunch with a group of us, asked for our e-mail addresses. He clucked when only half of us had them, and I remembered thinking at the time, "Hey, Mr. California Cutting-Edge, if you've got something to tell us, just drop it in the mail." As with all new technologies, social-networking sites must pass through predictable Kübler-Ross-type stages in reaction to them. Think of the cell phone. First came derision, then resistance, reluctant adoption, and finally an inability to function without it.

My other professor friends didn't even have profiles. After I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the evils of Facebook, this was less of a surprise. In the piece, one journalism professor is quoted asking a class of 140 students how many had watched the NewsHour on PBS the night before. Only a few hands went up. Then a student said, "Ask them how many use Facebook." Every hand went up. "I was amazed," the professor said. Yes, it's a shock to think these students are squandering their time by sending playful messages to each other when instead they could be soaking their dentures while watching Jim Lehrer.

When Slate copy editor Torie Bosch friended me (out of sympathy as much as friendship), she suggested I might meet people by finding some groups to join. I discovered the 60,000 member "People who don't sleep enough because they stay up late for no reason" and the 14-member "My Name is Emily Joy" (I posted on their "wall" that everyone in my life has noted that my middle name is a bad fit), but neither group brought me any further friends.

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