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?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

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 ...

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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.

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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.

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?"

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.

But after Slate editorial assistant Christopher Beam friended me, I finally experienced the magic that is promised by social networks. One of Chris' more than 240 friends friended me in turn and wrote me a note. We exchanged a few messages, and then I saw in News Feed that following my lead, he joined the group of night owls. In response, I sent him a Facebook gift, an icon of a teddy bear, and encouraged him to get a stuffed animal and get to bed earlier. He in turn sent me a Facebook gift, the image of the backside of a troll doll (at least it wasn't an engagement ring or roll of toilet paper). I now felt as if I had truly joined the new world.

I finally worked up the nerve to friend one of my unknown college classmates, a fellow journalist. I hoped she'd take pity on me when I sent a short message explaining that I was doing a story on Facebook. She promptly accepted my request. I saw on her profile that she was very involved with alumnae affairs—in her Facebook photo album, there was a picture of her with two classmates I did recognize. After I Googled her, I discovered she was on the organizing committee of our—oh my God!—our 30th college reunion, which I hadn't realized was coming up in June. I had moved a little more than a year ago and, obviously, the college had lost me. It seemed appropriate—I was lost and alienated during the time I was there.

If only there had been Facebook when I was in school! That way, I could have skipped years of loneliness. The Michigan State University professors found that even morose students, such as I was, end up making social connections in spite of themselves when they sign up for Facebook. If I had had Facebook, I would have known all along that my reunion was coming up. Of course, now that there is Facebook, and everyone can stay in touch, and look at one another's  photo albums, and see one another's haircuts as the years go on, reunions are going to be a lot less interesting.

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