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Social Networking Primer

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As places to exchange ideas today, book groups, political rallies, and private clubs seem quaint. But engaging discussions and lively debates haven't disappeared, they've just shifted venues to Web-based social networks.

Social networks—Internet sites that help you connect with others—have captured the attention of millions of people. Facebook, Twitter, AARP.org, and other such sites make it easy to stay in touch with old friends, classmates, and colleagues, and also let you develop new friendships, host special-interest groups, and chat with people who share your enthusiasm for anything from politics to belly dancing.

The Big Guys

With 200 million active members (3.5 million of whom are age 50+), Facebook is the largest of the lot. Twitter, with 32 million participants, is wildly popular and growing—with its role in the recent political protests in Iran giving it even greater visibility. MySpace, another high-profile network, has 125 million users, but its appeal is mostly with the under-34 market, where music and entertainment take center stage.

With My Space fading, Facebook and Twitter are the hot social-networking sites of the moment, and whether you connect to one of them through your PC or a via Web-enabled smart phone, you may find that either one or both become part of your daily routine. Here's how to get started with each, and how to use an up-and-coming site called "Ning" to easily create your own social network.

Facebook

Facebook is a phenomenon unparalleled in the history of the Internet. It started life in 2003 as a way for Harvard students to meet and keep in touch. It expanded to other colleges in 2004, and then to high schools in 2005. In September 2006, Facebook finally opened its doors to people of all ages.

The average Facebook member has 120 friends, representing a mix of family members, long-lost cronies, current and former colleagues, and, for the truly extroverted, all of their friends, too.

But what are all these people doing? In a word, communicating. Members use Facebook to stay in touch through regular updates. People say anything from, "On my way to the town hall on health care," to, "Just set up a new charity—check it out!" They share opinions, thoughts, and ideas on everything from the economy to reality TV—and can instantly communicate with everyone in their online network, at the same time. On the lighter side, members frequently indulge in the thousands of Facebook programs to take online quizzes ("My Top-Five Books," "Politicians I'm Most Like"), play Scrabble, send virtual gifts of roses and cigars (presents that exist only on the Internet), and more.

One hour of setup, half an hour of searching for friends, and a week of experimentation is all you need to see if Facebook is right for you.

Step 1: Get Started.
To get started withFacebook, first decide on a "user name," the moniker you'll go by as you use the site. On some sites, remaining anonymous is an accepted practice, but on Facebook, most people use their real names or variants ("joesmith" or "jsmith," for example).

Next you can create a profile, a kind of mini-biography of your interests, where you work, where you went to school, the neighborhood you live in, and so on. The more information you add to your profile, the more engaging you'll find Facebook. That's because the site suggests connections between you and people with like interests, old colleagues, classmates, neighbors, and so on. Also add a photo of yourself—the site walks you through the process—so Facebook can display it alongside your updates.

Concerned about your privacy? You're in control: It's totally up to you to decide who sees your profile and with whom you communicate (see "Make It Safe," below).

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