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People will usually ask for your cellphone number. Asking for your e-mail address is also quite common. But how do you respond to “Are you on Facebook?”

Like many, I’m not exactly a raving fan of social networks, perhaps because I don’t see myself spending a lot of time on something that doesn’t seem immediately useful in a practical way. That being said, apparently a large number of people think otherwise.

I’ve seen several high school students squeeze into a single booth at an Internet café. This so they can save on fees and share a half-hour time slot just to update their Friendster accounts.

For older students and the upscale crowd, Facebook <www.facebook. com> rather than Friendster <www.friendster.com> is the preferred social network. So, what can one do on a social network? One practical use immediately comes to mind: changing contact info.

In the previous millennium, we used an ungainly collection of calling cards as reference for professional and business contacts. Nowadays, cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses change so frequently, that any calling card may be obsolete within months.

Phonebooks (whether in e-mail or on your phone) are a bit better. But the numbers and addresses still change. To solve this problem, a social network provides the additional benefit of allowing you to find a person even after contact details change.

Clearly the Internet is less useful for interacting with an “inner circle” you regularly meet, like immediate family, close friends, or work associates. Rather, Internet social tools are more useful for keeping in touch with a wider, more amorphous outer circle of acquaintances.

There are some who simply collect friends the way others collect stamps or coins. This scatt

ergun approach isn’t very useful, and the menagerie gets a bit difficult to visualize or manage beyond a certain point. So, who do you include in your online social network?

Family & Old School Chums

Since the early days, the ‘Net has been a great way to find and get in touch with old classmates, and our diaspora of relatives all over the world. You may simply be curious about what everyone is doing nowadays or may be planning a reunion. E-mail lists such as Yahoo!Groups <groups. yahoo.com> are still the primary way to keep up an ongoing cyber-conversation, but social networks allow you to maintain contact without the chatter.

Professional & Business Contacts

Even more so than friends and family, you will want some sort of ready reference to your professional and business contacts. The preferred social network for this is LinkedIn <www.linkedin.com>, though you can also do the same thing on Facebook. This is particularly useful for occasional or international contacts, those you may have met at a conference or worked with on a single project. Rather than drift out of touch, social networks provide a ready reference should you need them in the future.

While building your social network, your contacts will usually fall into these three broad

groups: family, friends, professional contacts. As your network grows, subsets or contexts will emerge. Social networks will often provide groups and other tools so you can classify your contacts and make them easier to manage.

Friends of Friends, Friends in Common

One interesting feature of social networks is to find that two of your friends already know each other. You may know each of them in different contexts, and are surprised

to find that they’re already directly acquainted. Getting people in touch with each other in useful ways is a gratifying benefit of social networks.

For those who want to do more than just get in touch, most social networking sites provide various “applications” (e.g., groups, games, trivia) that even those who don’t know each other very well can participate in.

With all the benefits, there are certainly caveats. Here, as elsewhere, a little bit of common sense goes a long way. Most social networks will allow you to post and expose as much or as little personal information as you wish. So, do exercise a bit of thought and prudence before posting anything online.

Be careful about connecting with strangers (there are spammers and scammers everywhere on the ‘Net) even on social networks. And finally, never give one website the username and password for another. Eschew convenience in favor of keeping your website log-ons distinct and more secure. Surf safe!

Print ed: 04/09

 

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