Social Networking 101
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Social Networking 101

From dating to blogging to discussions of literature, the Internet offers a whole new way to express yourself and to meet new people. Use our guide to answer your questions, learn to connect, and be part of the fun.

What's a Blog?

A blog (shortened from "Weblog") is a personal Web page that the creator regularly updates. It's similar to a diary or journal, except bloggers choose to post their feelings, thoughts, and observations for the world to see rather than to scribble them on a page. Blogs are usually updated daily or weekly and most offer readers an opportunity to post a comment. No editor, publisher, or other third party filters the information. Freedom of speech prevails, but the quality of writing and subject matter are a decidedly mixed bag. Blogs promote projects, share experiences, voice opinions, and chronicle journeys; most contain photos or other graphics and links to other Web sites. A woman who's battling breast cancer may create a blog so she can update friends about her health without fielding phone calls all day long. A stay-at-home mom may blog to share her day-to-day thoughts on raising kids. The possibilities are endless -- and to date there are more than 70 million blogs on the Internet.

To get a sense of what blogs are about, visit blogsearch.google.com, type in any topic, and take a tour of the scores of blogs that turn up. Some of the most popular are also listed at technorati.com/pop/blogs.

To start your own blog, go to google.com and search "free blog." You'll get a list of dozens of free blog sites. Better yet, go to lhj.com/startablog. Any blog site should walk you step by step through the process of creating one. Don't be discouraged if you have few visitors at first; it takes time to establish an audience. Post on other blogs to introduce yourself and invite visitors to yours.

Blogs We Love

Check out these blogs -- they're fun and informative.

Thebudgetfashionista.com
Fashion and style tips for women with real bodies -- and real budgets.

Designspongeonline.com
Daily inspiration for the interior designer in you, whether you're plotting your dream kitchen or painting a wall.

Cupcakestakethecake.blogspot.com
A whole blog devoted to cupcakes. Need we say more?

Mentalfloss.com/blogs
Random, interesting information that will give you more than enough conversation starters for your next dinner party.

Fitnessmagazine.com/community
Healthy inspiration on everything from diets to half-marathon training from the entertaining and informative bloggers at FITNESS magazine.

Politico.com
For political junkies who live outside the Beltway but want to feel like insiders.

Sound off on lhj.com -- Whether the topic is politics, diets, or marriage (to name just a few), you can talk about it on our message boards.

Can I Get a Date?

The Internet has been matchmaker to thousands of now-married or dating couples. Even if you're not in the market for a spouse, you might welcome a dinner companion or even an online flirtation. Dating sites have become especially popular among singles in their 40s and 50s because they offer a grown-up alternative to the bar scene.

Online dating sites use the same technology that computerized dating services did in the 1960s. After you answer a series of questions to create a profile, most sites then compare the qualities you describe in yourself to those you're looking for in a man and find matches. If you'd rather make your own match, you can search the profiles according to various categories (age, physical attributes, location, education, likes, dislikes) and view the profiles yourself.

Most dating sites ask subscribers standard questions about height, weight, body type, smoking and drinking habits, education, and location. Some may want you to list recently read books, favorite musicians or songs, the five things you can't live without, the kind of person you're looking for, or what you have to offer. Each site is different, but all want to gather as much information as possible to paint detailed picture of who you are and what you're looking for.

While some online dating services are free, the majority charge fees, which usually cover a period of time or a maximum number of contacts. Most sites allow a free trial or limited use before requiring payment, and each site has its own personality. So it makes sense to take a sneak peek before committing yourself financially. Many dating sites are geared to specific identities based on age, religion, race, or sexual preference. Jdate.com, for example, is the leading Jewish singles networking site, Gay.com caters to gays and lesbians, and Seniorfriendfinder.com targets seniors. And some sites are racier than others: For instance, Nerve.com is younger and more "out there" than Match.com or Eharmony.com.

You should definitely post a picture: Statistics show that profiles with a photograph are viewed more often than those without one. Stick with one that reveals the true you. Posting a 20-years-younger or 20-pounds-lighter shot only misleads any potential match and ends up doing a disservice to both of you. (As for uploading the photo onto the site, your digital camera should come with a USB cable and instructions on how to get your photos onto your hard drive; if you have a nondigital camera, ask your photo processor to put the developed photos on a CD. From there, the dating site itself should have instructions for posting the photo.)

If you find a profile that interests you, there are usually two routes available: You can e-mail the person through an anonymous e-mail account set up through the site, or you can send a "wink" -- an unwritten message that brings your profile to the person's attention so he can decide whether to make contact. You have no obligation to respond to anyone who contacts you, nor should you be hurt if you don't hear back from someone you've contacted. You may not be his type, or perhaps he has already found someone and neglected to take down the profile. If you prefer to be the date seeker and not have others window-shop your profile, you can make it private, choosing whether and when to reveal it.

Online dating requires all the usual cautions, and then some. Never divulge your last name or home address before meeting a person face to face. If you choose to talk by telephone, give a cell phone number so no one can trace your home address. For a first meeting, keep it brief (a cup of coffee is good) and in a public place. As an extra precaution, make sure a friend or family member knows what you're doing, when, and where. Under no circumstances should you get into a car with the person or meet in an isolated area.

Love Actually

In late 2003, Todd Ruback, 47, a divorced attorney living in New Jersey, was looking at profiles on Jdate.com when a phrase on one of them caught his eye: "By the way, I am hilarious."

The woman, Suzanne Schecter, also 47, noticed that Ruback had checked out her profile. After a year of online dating, the freelance TV producer, who was also divorced, was about to call it quits, but she decided to e-mail Ruback. He wrote her back with an "incredibly sweet" message, and soon the two were talking regularly on the phone.

Their first meeting -- five weeks after that initial contact -- was a coffee date that turned into a long walk through Central Park and eventually dinner. "It was a perfect day," Ruback recalls.

They got engaged a year later on vacation in St. Bart's. "We were swimming in the ocean," says Schecter, "and I just looked at him and said, 'Isn't it time?'"

They were married the following year, on September 18, 2005, in a small ceremony at her parents' apartment surrounded by family and close friends. Did Schecter live up to her own billing? "Absolutely," says Ruback. "She's so funny -- I married the next Lucille Ball."

Can It Bring My Family Closer?

Once a week Kate Monaghan and her two kids sit at the family computer at home in San Francisco while Kate's dad is at his computer in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the four of them talk to each other face to face. How? Over the Internet, using a webcam with sound capabilities. Not all computers come with a webcam, but many now have one built directly into the monitor. If your computer doesn't, you can buy a separate webcam and hook it up quite easily. To have a two-way conversation, both parties need to download a free program like Skype or Windows Live Messenger.

How Do I Socialize Online?

The Internet fills a void in many people's social lives, especially those who rarely get out of the house. When chat rooms first became popular more than a decade or so ago, most were unimpressive. There was plenty of adolescent potty talk but little else going on. The medium has evolved since then, and today chat rooms have largely been replaced by message boards, forums, and discussion groups. All present a golden opportunity for people who are unlikely to meet in person to engage in intelligent discussions on topics of mutual interest.

The quality of those conversations, of course, can vary as widely as the topics themselves. Chat rooms, forums, and discussion groups often focus on a single topic, and the conversation -- which, in the case of a chat room, may be live -- can go on at length. Message boards, which allow you to make a point or respond to a previous post made by someone else, tend to be briefer, depending on who is posting the message. Your alma mater's Web site may sponsor discussions, or perhaps a travel site you visit has a message board. Many sites devoted to a passion (cooking, say, or jazz) sponsor forums. Or you might see a message board for visitor comments on a site you're using to research car prices. Look for "message board," "chat," or "forum" in a site's table of contents.

Don't be put off if a site requires that you register in order to view its discussion groups -- this is standard. You will probably be asked to establish an identity. Anonymity is part of safe surfing on the Internet, so use some sort of nickname instead of your real name. There's always a chance that registering may make you vulnerable to spam or junk e-mail, so instead of listing your primary e-mail address, open a secondary address and use it just for chat rooms, forums, shopping, and newsletters. If a password is required, don't use the same one you use for any online financial transactions. Make your password at least six characters and a combination of letters and numbers. To really scramble things, throw in a couple of capital letters.

Also, snoop a little before joining up. You may decide, after a few minutes of monitoring the discussion, that a site is not a place where you want to share your thoughts. The sharing, after all, is what makes the experience unique -- the ability to broaden your social circle and enjoy the company of people you otherwise would never have met.

Once you're posting, never reveal your home address or phone number, your birthday, where you were born, or your mother's maiden name. Banks and credit-card companies often use such information to confirm your identity, and online predators sometimes troll forums and discussions for this information. And keep in mind that your conversation is effectively public, so use discretion. A chat room or forum is no place to sell a product, force your views on others, or rant and rave on a particular topic.

JOIN US! Visit lhj.com/community to create a profile and chat with LHJ readers.

Facebook: Friend or Foe?

Once the domain of high school and college students, the social networking site Facebook is increasingly popular with the over-35 crowd.

"Facebook is awesome," says one recent convert, a 44-year-old woman who loves the way the site lets her catch up and keep in touch with people she rarely sees. "My teenagers think it's dorky for someone my age to be on Facebook, but who cares?"

The downside? "It's an unbelievable time suck!" says Therese Borchard, 38. "I'm getting ready to unplug and stay offline for 10 days. It's a mental-health experiment."

Adapted from Is This Thing On? by Abby Stokes (Workman Publishing). Copyright (c) 2008 Abby Stokes. All rights reserved.

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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2009.

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