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Navigating the world of online networking

Tips and tricks for getting started on Facebook, LinkedIn, and more....SclNtwrkLgs.gif

In the last couple of years, social networking Web sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have become almost as ubiquitous an accessory as a cell phone or a computer. A sizeable proportion of Gen X and Millenials have a page (or two or three)--some estimates say nearly 90 percent of college students maintain at least one page--but what about baby boomers? Is social networking "just for kids," or are people over 40 adopting the technology as well?

A recent report from Forrester Research indicates that baby boomers are more technically savvy than might be popularly believed. According to the study, more than 60 percent of boomers are using social media like blogs, forums, podcasts, and online videos. And one-third of adult Internet users have a profile on a social networking site, up from 8 percent in 2005 (according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project).

Sometimes, it seems that everyone, from individuals still in the corporate world to retired grandparents, is going online. Heck, even nonagenarian actor and academy award winner Kirk Douglas has his own MySpace page to keep in touch with fans and family alike. (He's a Sagittarius, by the way.)

But for those not yet using the Web's social media capabilities, what's the big deal? How does one get started or find a social network? What use are these sites for baby boomers who don't want to swap horror sound bites about the latest chemistry exam or play "Mafia Wars" or check out what time people are meeting up at the mall?

Says Ellen Thayer, U of M technology specialist and instructor for the upcoming LearningLife workshop on social networking, "Sure, the way the different generations use social networking is a bit different, but on the whole...people like to connect. They like to find people with similar interests and similar passions. That's pretty much universal."

She continues, "If you can use Google or e-mail, you can do this. It's a wonderful way for people to build community, keep in touch, and discover or develop an encore career."

Thayer says the concept of encore careers (a career that combines personal fulfillment and social impact, often engaged in in the second half of life, following retirement) fits especially well with social networking. "For a site like LinkedIn, it's very professional and work-focused. You make connections among people in varying industries, and can use those connections to network in your job search. Facebook is a bit more social and informal, but you can find people who have similar interests, whether they are civic or social."

Whether you use them for finding a career or not, social networking Web sites are becoming the new way of keeping in touch. "It used to be," Thayer says, "that you'd meet someone at a conference or an event or a workshop, and you'd say, 'Can I get your phone number or business card and we'll keep in touch?' Now, though, you ask if they have a LinkedIn or Facebook page. The next time you're online, you put in their name, and invite them to connect."

Social networking can be as involved or as hands-off as you want, Thayer says. "You get out of it what you put in to it. Obviously, it does require a minimal time commitment, to set it up, update it, etc. But after that, how much time you want to invest is up to you. Some people belong to many groups--book clubs, sporting groups, church groups, volunteer organizations. Some people just use it to keep in touch with a few family and friends."

The most complex part is understanding how to set up a user profile and privacy settings. For applications like Facebook, users can display as much information--or as little--about themselves as they'd like, and they can also limit who can or cannot see their profiles or search for them. "You do need to find the balance that works for you," says Thayer. "The point of social networking is sharing, though, so keep that in mind as you decide how much you are comfortable putting out there."

Because creating a good profile and properly configuring privacy settings are the foundations for successful social networking, they will be two of the main topics covered at Thayer's LearningLife workshop on November 21, "Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter: Making Them Work for You."

The workshop will also help individuals who feel overwhelmed at the idea of social networking, or who feel as if "it's too late now" to get started. "The technology is really just getting rolling," says Thayer. "People just getting started now, taking a class like this one or another of its kind...we aren't behind at all. Social networking is a great new tool with lots of possibilities and opportunities for community building. Baby boomers (and everyone) have a great chance to get started and to learn how we can create something of benefit--not just for ourselves, but for others."

Social Media "Perks and Pitfalls"

New to social networking? LearningLife instructor and U of M technology specialist Ellen Thayer shares some things to keep in mind...and to avoid.

Social networking is a great way to keep connected with friends and family all over the globe.

It's an easy and free way to build a community of individuals who share an interest area. It's also wonderful for networking, both for a first career or an encore career.

Social networking allows you to help others, whether it's by putting friends in contact with resources they can use, building awareness for a cause, or building partnerships among people and organizations.

It can be a substantial investment of time. Know your limits when you get started, and stick to them. Know why you are there, and what you want to share/be a part of. You don't need to "superpoke" your sister-in-law, and chances are your former co-worker doesn't care that you play MafiaWars in your free time and are on level 26.

Your profile and security and privacy settings are the foundation for your social networking experience. Pick a solid, strong password, and don't share it. Make sure you understand the privacy and profile settings thoroughly and what they allow/don't allow.

Above all, remember the Internet is public. Don't write something on someone's wall you wouldn't want everyone to see--and don't share something on yours unless you are comfortable knowing the whole world may know it soon, too.

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