Adding Facebook—a Virtual Social Life—to Your Mix

Computer photo by Wilton Rodregues

Do you have a virtual social life as well as a real one? Facebook, a social networking site dominated by young people, is also becoming popular with retirees. That trend will likely intensify in upcoming years as Boomers, most of whom are already online, move into retirement. A fundamental reason underpins Facebook’s likely growth among older people: friends can be hard to make in later life, and at its core, Facebook is about friends.

Facebook Fundamentals

Signing up is easy: Go to www.facebook.com and fill in the identifying information. After you join and go to your home page, the dominant feature is the newsfeed, which occupies the center of the page. Once you acquire friends, the newsfeed acts like a huge bulletin board arranged as a long list of items that you and your friends post.

One friend might post news from the office; someone else may put up a quote from the Bible; a golfing buddy may show a picture of himself teeing off; another friend may have puppies for sale; and so it goes. Politics, photographs, family activities, and links to news articles are especially popular.

Friends are made by request—a user sends a friend request to another user, who then confirms, denies, or ignores it. I’ve known college students to have thousands of Facebook friends, but one recent study puts the median number of friends at about 100. Active users often have more than the median, perhaps averaging around 150 to 200 friends.

These numbers illustrate a wonderful efficiency: Facebook makes it easy to keep up with 150 friends. That would be almost impossible using telephones, letters, or even emails.

Another main feature of Facebook is a user’s Timeline. (Timeline used to be the Personal Profile Page). Everything one does on Facebook shows up on the Timeline: posts, new friends, what you write on the pages of friends, as well as any other activity. It is a virtual journal, kept automatically, and it includes links to all the applications or other parts of Facebook.

In the U.S., there are about 156 million Facebook users, and about 13% of them are 55 years or older. The Census Bureau estimates about 74 million people are 55 or older (Table 1, Current Population Survey), implying about 27% of them—or 20 million—are using Facebook.

Keeping up with family and with friends are primary motivations for about two-thirds of users. About half of the users cite connecting with old friends as another major reason. Sharing hobbies, reading about celebrities, or finding romantic or dating partners are not important for most users.

Fun with Cautions

Keeping up with the newsfeed is fun. People post jokes, relate funny incidents in their lives, report funny moments witnessed in passing, and post fun stories from other media such as online blogs, magazines, or newspapers.

I have broadened my news reading experiences by clicking on links to stories posted by friends, stories I would otherwise not see.

I have reconnected with many high school classmates. Facebook was important to us in planning our 49th reunion (in lieu of 50th). We chatted, using Facebook’s chat feature, emailed through Facebook, posted stories, coordinated travel and motel arrangements, and generally upped the level of anticipation preceding the reunion. It was great fun. Now we continue to share small parts of our lives.

One important caution involves privacy. Facebook has an involved set of privacy controls, but perhaps the most important is the setting for each post. Choices range from only you (a private post), to friends, and the public at large. Facebook allows you to create special lists of friends, like work, church, family, etc. Each post can be made visible only to friends on a list as well.

The key caution, however, involves Facebook’s core function—social networking. What you put on Facebook will be seen by others, and you can’t control what they may do with it. Put another way: If you are not willing to see your post on the font page of the local paper, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, then don’t put it on Facebook.

The Internet is full of stories of people getting caught up in Facebook problems.  In one case, a young teacher resigned her job under pressure, and it now seems a “friend” took some of her photos and sent them anonymously to her school principal, claiming to be a concerned parent.  In another case, a man in Seattle now faces criminal charges for bigamy stemming from his use of Facebook.

Facebook has been involved in breaking romances. Here is one post loaded with unexpected irony: “Thanks to facebook my ex wife started cheating on me…we divorced…I am the happiest i’ve ever been.” The photo below shows a similar incident: Steven and Emily have their version of an age-old story publicized through Facebook.

A highway billboard in New York gets photographed and posted to Facebook, then shared among friends of friends of friends ...

People sometimes believe social networking substitutes for face-to-face encounters, and they often bemoan the supposed loss. There may be some truth to that view. But to me, Facebook seems more like a new social experience that supplements personal interaction. It may even enhance traditional friendships by facilitating opportunities for get-togethers.

As we age, it gets harder to go out. Our virtual friends, most of whom we know personally from life’s experiences, will inadvertently share their lives with us as they post about their activities and interests. It is hard to imagine that keeping up with family and friends in this way will be anything other than genuinely enriching.

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