Saturday, October 13, 2007

You're Never Too Old To Poke

October 14, 2007

73 and Loaded With Friends on Facebook


WHEN Amy Waldman first signed on to Facebook last year and started to send joking messages about good grammar back and forth with a new 18-year-old friend, Ms. Waldman’s 19-year-old daughter, Talia, upbraided her for not revealing that she was actually in her 40s.

“You have to tell her you’re old,” she explained, “because on Facebook, that’s creepy.”

Ms. Waldman created a Facebook group to commemorate the incident: “over 40 is ‘facebook creepy.’”

It’s no secret that Facebook, which started as a networking playground for college kids, is graying, and that the percentage of active members who are over 25 years old and out of school has risen to some 40 percent of the overall population of about 45 million.

The influx raises questions. Will the loss of the campus sensibility and the youthful gestalt dilute the Facebook experience? And will the newcomers use the site — and change it? Or is it just another example of the fact that Americans age, but never seem to mature?


FOR the most part, in fact, the entry of millions of people with, you know, jobs and stuff, has been greeted with an epic “whatever,” said Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in New York University’s interactive telecommunications program. “The average Facebook user isn’t going to care that people utterly unlike them are doing things they utterly don’t care about on some other corner of the site,” he said.


But the grown-ups are everywhere.


Ms. Waldman — she of the creepy 40s — finds herself using Facebook in many of the ways that younger people do, except for the sexual cruising: she keeps up with old friends, makes new ones and uses the network to, well, network.


Ms. Waldman also used Facebook in her volunteer work. She leads 12-week family education programs through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and last spring, she needed a speaker for one of the classes. She posted a request on a Facebook page about mental health, asking for “someone with a mental illness who has experienced breakdown and recovery to talk about their experience with the class.”

She soon heard from Megan Banner, a 20-year-old who had suffered a bout of mental illness in her high school years, recovered and now attends college in Milwaukee. Ms. Banner said she had been thinking about getting involved with advocacy for mental illness issues when she saw Ms. Waldman’s note, and “It was as if it was meant to be.”

They chatted over Facebook and met at a local Starbucks. Ms. Banner spoke to the class and, in a message via Facebook, recalled, “I had the crowd crying.” She said she believed that she “gave some people the hope to continue.”

Since then, Ms. Banner has engaged in more advocacy and speaking about mental health. The evening with Ms. Waldman’s class, she said, “just changed my whole life.”

Young and old will inevitably use the technology of Facebook differently, said Nicole Ellison, an assistant professor in the telecommunications, information studies and media department at Michigan State University.


Each new technology for communication, from the telephone to e-mail to Facebook “poking,” goes through a similar cycle, he said. “First we invent the technologies, then we figure out the social norms that tame the technology and allow it to occupy a nondistracting part of our life.” In other words, for Facebook to truly succeed, ... [Paul Saffo] , said, it will have to recede.


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