I grew up in Brooklyn at a time when there were many sets of parental eyes watching over us. Riding our bikes, playing stoopball or jumping rope on the sidewalk, we knew, without thinking too much about it, that we were safe.
We also knew that if any of us did or said something that was deemed less than civil, it would get back to our mothers (or whoever was waiting at home, and there was always someone waiting at home) before even one foot stepped inside the front door.
We called it "fencing." Fencing was the process by which one neighbor would tell another neighbor who would tell another neighbor who would tell another neighbor what was going on, all with one arm positioned casually, but meaningfully, over the fence.
Sometimes the conversation took place in hushed, intimate voices. If I came across my grandmother in the backyard with her arm over the fence, talking with a neighbor on either side of us, and her tone was low, quiet, I knew it was about something that "young ears" weren't supposed to hear. Or someone had died. That was always big, fast-moving news.
The "big story" of the day would sometimes start on one end of the block and work its way through the attached houses in lightning speed. It was something to behold.
Neighbors spread updates about births, jobs, divorces, everything. When we started getting TV sets, they'd talk about what Walter Cronkite said, or state their views on who was funnier, Jack Benny or Red Skelton. Communication centered around that proverbial picket fence, where neighbors shared recipes, gossip and news that had meaning in their everyday lives.
It was a simple time.
Fast forward to today: cell phones, emails, texting, websites, tweeting -- so many ways to share. For sure, "fencing" still exists, but not like it once did. Facebook in particular has added a whole new dimension to "fencing" and our lives. Our minds immediately turn to teenagers when we think of Facebook, but the fact is that social media growth is being driven by women over 50. We represent the most dramatic increase of any age group on Facebook, from 31 percent in 2008 to over 70 percent in 2009 and growing stronger every day. Why?
Women have always loved sharing and connecting. How many times have you waited for a bus, only to hear the whole life story of the woman next to you before the bus even arrived (and she heard a bit of yours, too, no doubt)? It's a natural, easy thing for many of us, and it always has been. There are women who use social media to kick-start their social lives after a divorce or being widowed, but the majority of women over 50 are more interested in connecting with other women to encourage, support, applaud and learn. It's a whole new twist on fencing.
When I joined Facebook less than a year ago, I had a dozen "Facebook friends," mostly women I knew. After I appeared on the Today Show to discuss my book, The Best of Everything After 50 , I invited women viewers to "join me on Facebook." Within hours I had hundreds of new friends from all over the country. Without exception, they wanted to talk about the challenges and ups and downs of being healthy and happy after 50. They were eager to learn, but even more profoundly, they wanted to be heard. Being a woman over 50 in our youth-centric society can often lead to feeling isolated and invisible. But once a woman creates a connection to a like-minded community, she feels empowered.
My "friend" base continues to grow, because each of the original group of friends shares the news with their friends, and so on and so on. Not only do we talk about the topics I raise in my book, but we share photos, news about family, recipes, discuss politics, books, anything that's on our minds. It's fencing at its best.
I check in with my Facebook friends several times a day. I don't have to; I want to. There are regular blog posts from my writer friends, and photos, notices about upcoming events that might interest me, celebrity gossip, alerts about sales. It gives me so much pleasure to know that these women, most of whom I may never meet, are in my life, cheering each other on, and applauding our efforts to create, in our own small ways, a better world for women over 50.
Recently, I asked my women Facebook friends the following question: what do you want to know about life after 50?
I explained that I would focus on those questions that came up the most often, and I'd get the input from some of the experts I had interviewed for my book. Hundreds of women responded, many through email or Facebook private messaging, and I plan to focus on the most top-of-mind questions in future posts. We'll cover everything that they -- and you -- want to know.
Stay tuned. The first will be up in a few days, and we want to know your thoughts. If you're not already on Facebook, get on, get involved, and start fencing!
Follow Barbara Hannah Grufferman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BGrufferman