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Mixing and Mingling in the Digital World | By Lia Tremblay

You can hardly get through the evening news these days without hearing the words “MySpace” or “Facebook.” Often, the news isn’t good.

Consider the recent case of a Missouri teenager whose online flirtation with a MySpace user named Josh ended in her suicide. (“Josh” was actually an adult neighbor fishing for information about the girl’s conflict with her own daughter.) Meanwhile, college campuses around the country are educating their students – the largest contingent of Facebook users – about the potential for stalking on such sites.

So your first instinct upon mention of these sites may be to run for the hills. But the truth is, with a little bit of caution and a dose of common sense, social networking sites can be a harmless and helpful tool in a changing world.

What are social networking sites?

Social networking sites are Web sites in which users can set up an online representation – including photos, journals and lists of favorite books or movies – and connect with others who use the same site. In many cases, users only connect to people they know in real life. Some broaden their networking in order to meet new people.

MySpace and Facebook are the two most commonly used sites and offer the most comprehensive list of options for personalizing an online presence. But media-sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr (which allow users to post and comment on one another’s photos and videos), also fall into the social networking category.

How can I safely use these sites?

As with all online activity, social networking must be done with a fair amount of caution. The people you “meet” online may not always be who they say they are and the information you post may be visible to more people than you intend. Here are a few points to keep you out of harm’s way:

Keep personal information to yourself. Don’t post phone numbers, addresses or anything else you wouldn’t give to a stranger on the street. Choose a user name that doesn’t contain your actual name.

Take advantage of privacy measures. Most social networking sites include options to hide information from everyone except your approved friends. You can apply this to only parts of your information, such as a personal diary.

Be aware that things aren’t always what they seem. That “friend request” may appear to come from someone you went to high school with or someone you might like to know, but it may be a spammer in disguise or worse. Exchange a few messages before adding someone to your friends list.

Watch out for “phishing.” This is a process in which scammers request your password by impersonating a company or Web site you trust. Look twice at the address in your browser before re-entering a password.

Help your kids to be especially cautious. Create your own profile and ask them to add you to their friend list so you can stay in the loop. Better yet, help them create their profiles and you keep the passwords. When they want to log on, they’ll have to go through you.

What can social networking do for me?

First, get it out of your head that this stuff is only for teenagers and college kids. A recent survey found that most MySpace users are over the age of 35.

If you keep the rules above in mind, social networking can be a great way to keep up with friends and family. It’s easier to stay in touch with old classmates, co-workers and friends when they are all in one digital “place.”

With a couple of clicks, you can see your college roommate’s wedding photos, read your niece’s birthday wish list and find out what your alumni group is up to. You can share your vacation videos without waiting until the next family reunion. You can find local bands that play your favorite music. You can find your next job or a great new client. The list goes on and on.

In a digital world, where cell phones are ubiquitous and handwritten notes antiquated, it helps to find new ways of reaching out to the ones we love and the ones we’d like to know better. While it should never be a substitute for real-life interaction, online social networking can keep you in the loop with friends and family.


Getting Started with Online Social Networking

MySpace (www.myspace.com)

This the most widely popular site, with most users over the age of 35. Profiles can be customized with everything from a favorite song to custom wallpaper to slideshows of your best photos.

Facebook (www.facebook.com)

Facebook is comprised of networks that correspond to colleges, high schools and companies. Many require an e-mail address that verifies you belong. Networks by geographic location are also available.

LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com)

Created for professional networking purposes, this lacks some of the bells and whistles offered by other sites but is a great way to link up with current and former clients, colleagues and employers.

YouTube (www.youtube.com)

Instantly upload your home movies and e-mail the link to friends. Use the search feature to see a favorite movie clip. Or set up a “channel” that features your movies and your favorites from others.

Flickr (www.flickr.com)

This operates much as YouTube does, except with still photographs instead of video. One notable feature is geotagging, which pinpoints on a map where your photos were taken and allows users to find others taken nearby.