Online networkers may have a point

The younger generation may depend on Web socializing, but older ones learn: It's just fun.

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published November 11, 2007

When I log onto MySpace, I feel like a king.

Thanks to my diligent efforts - and the kind of networking only a weekend musician can indulge - a bustling band of 1,132 friends waits for me. Everyone from old college buddies to local bandmates and distant players I will never meet forms my network.

The story is the same on Facebook, where I've assembled more than 300 friends, including pundit/blogger Arianna Huffington, comic actor Jeff Garlin, my editor here at the St. Petersburg Times and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. At LinkedIn, my 243 professional connections include folks from every newspaper where I've worked.

In these worlds, I'm a monarch of social networking, connected to a vast line of friends, acquaintances and stone cold strangers. As everyone from TV ratings company Nielsen Media Research to pop singer Kylie Minogue debuts their own social networking sites, opportunities for such connections will only increase.

But as I consider these sprawling relationships, I'm struck by one thing: I have no idea what to do with them.

Rachel Honig, the chief operating officer of the New York digital marketing company Digital Power and Light, declined to let me down easy. Her analysis in a pointed phrase: It's generational, dude.

"People who are in their 20s are conducting very successful social lives, from a certain definition, from their couch in their sweat pants," said Honig, a Jedi Master of online communication with more than 5,200 e-mail addresses in her Microsoft Outlook address book. "They tell jokes, they make dinner plans, they have cybersex."

In fact, Honig says the biggest problem this generation has is keeping business and social contacts separate don't need the boss seeing an e-mail to your buddies about how much you hate your job, for instance. And because many social networks reach into your e-mail address book to offer membership to your friends, you can find yourself pulled into a half dozen services before long.

"I have a love/hate relationship with my social networks," admitted Honig, who said she getse-mail updates from seven social networks on four e-mail accounts. "And I have to decide: How many of these things am I going to check when I get home?"

As a married 40-something 12 years into my latest job, I'm a bit out of the demographic, admittedly. When I've tried to use my networks to reach friends or sourcesfor stories, I've found it's much easier to e-mail or call.

But Clay Shirky, an expert on the social effects of Internet technologies at New York University, said I'm missing the point. Social networks aren't about constantly contacting everyone in your friend circle; they're about knowing that you can.

"People who remember when there wasn't a World Wide Web know what it's like to lose touch with people from high school or college," said Shirky. "But people in their 20s can maintain contact with everyone for as long as they want. You're keeping the possibility of contacting someone without ever having to use it."

This is especially useful when changing jobs and locales. Work e-mail addresses may change, but a MySpace or Facebook account can remain the same no matter where you live in the world.

"If I'm using a professional-oriented social network site like LinkedIn, it's something my boss doesn't control," said Brendan Wovchko, a sales and marketing consultant who specializes in online social networks. "If I get fired, I don't have to hurry up and download my address book as the security people are escorting me out the door. It's creating a permanent connection with somebody that goes where I go."

The list of friends on a social networking site can feel like a status symbol. Who doesn't feel a little better about themselves after logging in to more than 1,000 waiting buddies?

To stoke that feeling, I find myself trolling the friends lists of those who have recently joined my network, trying to add folks who might help me feel even better. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled on actress Sarah M. Gellar, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen and humorist Andy Borowitz on Facebook; trading e-mails on MySpace with former Level 42 drummer Phil Gould was cool, as was meeting comic Jim Gaffigan.

Each network can reflect a different part of your personality. MySpace, with its wide array of graphic looks and performer-friendly atmosphere, feels like an edgier, working class environment. Facebook, which started in 2004 as a Harvard-only network, has a more standard look and seems more upscale.

So how do you even decide which service is worth your time, when an e-mail from a friend pops up asking you to join their network?

"Same way you figure out whether a bar is worth your time and energy," cracked Shirky. "Ask yourself: Are your friends there?"

Still, after years of primping MySpace and Facebook pages, that new-toy enthusiasm has begun to fade. Wovchko said that too is generational; technology divides the generations according to how it settles into our lives.

While 20-somethings may feel comfortable working social networks and instant messages, older generations have focused one-mail and the World Wide Web - technology that flowered as they came of age, Wovchko said.

"Never before have we had these (communication technologies) in society which have so neatly separated the generations," he added. "I mean, I check my MySpace page maybe once a week. I'm not half as engaged as the generation behind me. It's almost like a litmus test."

After months of focusing on Facebook, I finally found a good use for my array of buddies. Contemplating a serious change, I considered shaving the goatee I have worn, with just one break, since my last days of high school.

So I asked my network, and verdict was resounding: keep the goat.

Sometimes, even a king has to listen to his friends.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.