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?
You know how in The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell describes the person he calls a "connector"—the charming, gregarious individual who knows everyone and makes things happen? I'm the opposite of that person. Even within my small circle, I'm always falling out of touch, and I never know what's going on. But finally, there seemed to be a solution to my isolation that didn't require me to actually go out and see people. Facebook, the three-year-old, 17-million-member social-networking site once the exclusive province of students, recently opened to anyone. The site has so addictively insinuated itself into the daily lives of those under the age of about 24 that academics are studying how it is changing the very nature of their social interactions. I decided to see if someone old enough to remember when answering machines were a radical communication breakthrough could find someone, anyone, among those 17 million willing to connect with me ...
As soon as I signed up, Facebook offered me helpful hints to start building my network. The suggestions turned out to be cruel, only reminding me of my Robinson Crusoe-like existence. First, Facebook offered to check my e-mail address book to find friends who already had Facebook profiles. That turned up zero matches. Then, Facebook suggested I look up the name of my high school and college, type in my graduation dates (1973 and 1977), and find my classmates. This yielded no one from high school and six people from my college, none of whom I knew. As a kind of archaeological excavation, I clicked on each subsequent year of Wellesley graduating classes in ascending order. The numbers were in the single digits for most of the subsequent two decades. Then, about three dozen showed up for the class of 2000. Of this year's graduating class, virtually all 550 have Facebook accounts.
I provided a photograph and minimal information for my profile (Facebook registration required)—listing all my favorite books, movies, etc., seemed too much like auditioning for an American Express ad—and waited for the "friending" to begin. (You can try to resist, but friend is a now a verb.) The idea behind Facebook and other social-networking sites like MySpace is that you can display yourself and your interests and make contact with people who are drawn to you. On Facebook, you build your connections by sending and accepting friend requests and joining networks (say, your college) and interest groups (for example, the "I Make Shampoo Mohawks in the Shower" group). Facebook also has features that allow you to communicate individually and collectively with people in your network and to be constantly updated on their activities.
I decided to try the random approach and started typing the names of friends into Facebook's search engine. I never found any but often turned up pictures of their children, which led to pictures of their children's many, many friends. Scrolling around the photos of all these creamy young people, I felt as if I should be wearing an ankle bracelet that sent signals to my parole officer. I also found all my high-school- and college-age nieces and nephews, but I knew they'd be as thrilled to receive my friend request as they would to have me show up at one of their mixers (do they still have mixers?).
I saw an article in the school newspaper of the University of Western Ontario by a student who said his resistance to Facebook had crumbled, and he was now hoping to collect more than 1,000 friends. I sent him a friend request with a note saying I wanted to help him with his mission. He never answered, and his rejection felt like a shovel of sand in the face.
Then, I got a friend request! An actual friend request! When I realized it was from a stranger, my fingers recoiled from the keyboard. I looked at his profile and discovered he was born in 1950—what was he doing on Facebook? Equally disturbing, he listed no other friends. Before accepting his friend request, I sent him a message asking how he had found my profile. A few days later he replied explaining that he, too, was working on a project about social-networking sites. Apparently he had written an e-mail to me about a previous Slate article, so I was one of only two Facebook people in his address book (I don't know why he wasn't in mine). It's clear that if you are in the target demographic for a face-lift, you're not going to know a lot of people on Facebook.