Those born in the 1970s and earlier are discovering that the social-networking site can be a compelling way to communicate
Fortunately, Debbie Weil had a 24-year-old daughter to clue her in when she joined Facebook. So daughter guided mom on the basics of the online social network, like "friending" another member or writing on someone's "wall." But daughter refused to tell mom what it meant to "poke" someone. So, Mom simply never pressed that button, unsure what it would do and a bit embarrassed to ask anyone else. "I've written a corporate blogging book and I still don't know what it means to poke someone," says Weil, a blogging consultant who gives her age as somewhere north of 45.
In growing numbers, the older set is discovering what millions of college students already know: Facebook can be a compelling, even addictive way, to communicate.
NOT JUST FOR THE COLLEGE CROWD
In just two months, Weil has accumulated 197 Facebook friends, including Steve Case, Chris Anderson, and Robert Scoble. Weil is one of the millions of people in their mid-30s and older who've joined Facebook during the past year. In all, unique visitors age 35 and older surged to 11.5 million in June. That was more than twice as many as a year ago and represented more than 40% of Facebook's total traffic in June, according to comScore Media Metrix.
There are quite a few groups within Facebook that cater to the older crowd. The "Born in the 60s. Any of us out there?" group boasts 1,950 members. Another group called "Unlike 99.99% of the Facebook population, I was born in the 50s" has 251 members.
Susan Pereira, 37, joined Facebook about two months ago and belongs to group whose name is no longer terribly apt: "Unlike 99.99% of the Facebook population, I was born in the 70s" now boasts 87,408 members. "I think a lot of people are turned off [by Facebook], thinking it's a kids thing, but I have found so many people my age getting into it and realizing how much fun it is," Pereira, a veterinary office assistant in Vancouver writes in a Facebook message to me. "It's such an amazing way to reconnect with people, stay in contact with people who matter and make new friends."
TO POKE OR NOT TO POKE
Pereira has a point. Although I've built profiles on a handful of social-networking sites, Facebook is the first I've actually wanted to use in my personal life. MySpace always felt a bit intimidating, like going to a huge frat party alone. But with Facebook's privacy tools, it feels like there's more control.
But unlike anything I've encountered in my 37 years, Facebook makes me really feel like I've finally crossed over to the other side of the generation gap. I'm not entirely clear on all of Facebook's unwritten social rules, all the things that college kids seem to understand intuitively. Yes, that includes what it means to poke someone. Facebook's help page says only that "a poke is a way to interact with your friends on Facebook" and that "people interpret the poke in many different ways." That's really no help. If I poke my boss as a playful gesture, for instance, will I be fired for sexual harassment?
"You have to be careful. It depends on what your relationship is with people originally," says Tom Krieglstein, 26, the founder of SwiftKick, a company that helps educate students and school administrators about social-networking sites like Facebook. "It can have a sexual connotation," but also can be used as a business tool to build rapport with colleagues and clients, Krieglstein says.
THIS TIME IT'S PERSONAL
Then there's the fundamental question of just how much personal information to reveal. While privacy doesn't appear to be much of an issue for the younger crowd, older people are often more wary about sharing personal bits of their lives. Facebook profiles include room for personal information such as your birthday, dating or marital status, sexual preferences, religion, politics, education, and details of your job. Right off the bat, you can list exactly what you're looking for, whether it's friendship, dating, or random play, which, be warned, is not a pickup game of flag football.
Weil says she really struggles with how much personal information to reveal. She recently posted a map on her profile of all the places she's been and the places she'd like to go. But she wonders if that's too personal. While most younger people likely wouldn't think twice about something like that, I can sympathize.
When I built out my Facebook profile, for instance, I expected it to be entirely personal and pretty much limited to my real-life family and friends. Now, when I get friend requests from people I barely know, I need to consider whether I'd want them to see the phone numbers in my profile, detailed information about my husband, or that one of my current TV obsessions is Scott Baio is 45…and Single. My work and home e-mail accounts are already flooded with press releases and spam, so I'm not sure I want my Facebook "News Feed" to be littered with updates from people I really don't know.
FRIEND OR FOE?
Because Facebook requires members to approve or ignore each friend request, decisions need to be made as to who exactly qualifies as a friend. "I got a friend request from Facebook from someone who's as close to a professional enemy as I have," says Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Shirky decided not to accept the invitation. Yet there are lots of gradations between best friend and professional enemy, so deciding who makes the cut can be hard. I've only accepted invitations from people whom I know well enough to give my cell-phone number. So far, because most of my close friends are not yet on Facebook, I've only got seven friends.
It's a challenge that other thirtysomethings face as well. Tracy Lynn Deis, 38, a consultant in Chicago, joined Facebook about a month ago and wishes more of her thirtysomething friends would join. "I've made new friends on Facebook, but they're all younger than me," says Deis, who now visits Facebook every day. "It's an awesome way to talk and to share family pictures," she says.
Intrepid Facebook souls that we are, Weil and I decide it's high time we find out what actually happens when you press the poke button. Does it send some sort of X-rated message? So, she tests it out on me. Turns out, it's a harmless message in my Facebook News Feed that says, "You were poked by Debbie Weil."
Rachael King is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in San Francisco.