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That Social Network Thing

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Their giggles made me worry. What the hell could a bunch of college-aged kids be doing, sitting in the corner, laughing at the Internet?

Yeah, I know. Call me naive. I'm worried about a bunch of college kids giggling? Puh-lease. Yeah, I grew up in a cave. Haven't shaved for years.

It was 2004, however, and though the Internet was certainly a force, it wasn't yet the Monster That Ate the Media that it would soon become. People were gossiping the old, traditional ways -- like, on the phone or at McDonald's. They were even reading newspapers, and the people still didn't mind that the day's news didn't include the previous night's sports scores.

Shows like "Dateline NBC" were starting to talk about pervs and weirdos who prowl on the net, making the whole thing seem rather unseemly. The Sept. 11 attacks were just a few years before, and a pack of people together, hovering around a computer, was perceived to be either the makings of a bomb plot or a hijacking.

I walked over, feeling like the nerdy high school teacher who just doesn't get it, like the ones you see in some corny, anti-adult John Hughes 80s movie. The giggling students were supposed to be thinking of story ideas, stuff about student life at Rutgers University. They weren't supposed to be giggling.

Like one of my old bosses used to say: "If you're having fun, stop!"

I peered over their smiling faces and saw their screens. Toward the top was something that said "the facebook." It had big blue squares that bordered the title, followed by tiny little bullet-points with words that were written by the same giggly college-aged kids. It looked like the kind of mash-up you'd find in a kindergarten class, not at college.

There were lists of quotes from these people, saying little more than a "hey ... what's up?" or "dude, you got my book?" Anything longer would be, like, a recipe for grain punch that some daring or dumb student was willing to share.

"This is going to change everything!" one of my students said, pointing at her screen. "I think we should write about this."

Now I was giggling. How could a bunch of bullet-points and blue squares change anything? Change what?

OK, give me a pass. I couldn't extrapolate the idea that this gossip site would ultimately evolve, and eventually transform everybody around me.

Yeah, a lot of it's not so good. Sometimes I feel like Gene Hackman in the "Poseidon Adventure," wincing as he watched people screw up, even after he warned them to stay away from the sinking end of the ship. I see myself gritting my teeth, just like he did as he watched people drown, whenever I see somebody pose for a picture with a joint in their mouth.

But there's been a lot of good, too. That's why I laugh a little whenever somebody gives me screwball eyes, looking at me like I'm some sort of alien because I now do this thing -- this social network thing, with the messaging and the IMing and the Scrabble thing and everything you might do in a casual conversation (save for the poking, a concept that's still alien even to me).

Yeah, I know all about Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who started this thing, perhaps under false pretenses. I heard of the movie coming out, "The Social Network," that portrays him as a bully who allegedly deceived his fellow students at Harvard when his Facebook too closely resembled their HarvardConnection.

I've heard about the divorces that were driven by somebody spending too much time on what's become, for many, a virtual love connection -- many of them legitimately romantic; others creepy and sleazy.

But I also think of the connections I've made, legitimate ones. I think of the stories I've written for The Huffington Post, and my blog, Coping with Life, and how I now get to share my writing with people from every facet of my life.

They include those form my high school, many of whom were pleased to see proof -- via Facebook -- that I was still alive. Many of them hadn't seen a single shred of my writings since I was editor of my high school newspaper in 1985. Unfortunate for some, they now get to see my face for the first time in many years.

On Facebook, I post almost every story I ever write, whether it's for Coping with Life, the Huffington Post or AOL's Patch.com, where I currently work as a regional editor for the Jersey Shore. I watch the hits drive up -- skyrocket, really -- the minute I put the address into the tiny Twitter box, which automatically reposts the link onto Facebook. I engage in legitimate debate whenever someone comments.

Right now, I'm hiring people for a series of towns, all to cover Jersey Shore news. I've got to find people who can live and work in places like Point Pleasant, Belmar, Brick Township, Howell Township, Toms River and Berkeley Township, N.J. - places whose beauty has been drowned by a decrepit MTV show that's dumber than dirt.

Through my own media -- and with no help from MTV -- I've gotten strong candidates by simply putting out alerts. Their stories will be on my Facebook, and Facebook will be the tool they'll need to get their message across.

I remember when I worked in the Trenton, N.J. Statehouse Bureau for one of my old papers, The Record of Bergen County, N.J.. We kind of caught onto this story-posting phenomenon quickly, posting even the smallest news brief in between the gossip on grain punch and the baseball games on our Facebook pages.

Some of the older editors who viewed Facebook as a thing that's only done by dirty kids would nearly choke on their lunches when they'd see our hit totals rise so high.

Sure, many have intentions that, some may say, are a bit unholy. A friend of mine said he turned to Facebook after a breakup. Every time he wanted sex, he looked up the postings from the ones who have only one interest listed: "Men." Then there are the others who have closed all the doors of their lives, and they've chosen to bury themselves into the screen of the computer, making themselves virtual recluses more reclusive than J.D. Salinger.

But I've got people I never thought I'd see again ... people who lived in mobile homes in Delaware who used to use the rabbit ears to get a T.V. signal when I worked for The Delaware State News 20 years ago. Some have ditched the trailer; others still have them; all of them got broadband.

I've had conversations with friends who needed help. Or maybe they just needed a conversation, because they had no one else to talk to. Talking on the telephone takes too much time and energy. Instant-messaging lets the thoughts run through the fingers, and lets people rattle on the keyboard, rather than taking talking breathlessly on the telephone.

I never thought I'd do it, let alone advocate for it. Then, Just a couple years after I saw those giggling girls, I became a part of it, joining Facebook when I got admitted into Columbia University for a masters degree.

The Columbia orientation-day packet had a sheet that said, "Fill this out for your Facebook profile." "Huh?" I though, wondering if this was a joke or a requirement, or both.

I submitted it, and then I quickly forgot about it ... until some six months later, when an email showed up in my inbox from Facebook. Two of my best friends friended me, which I readily accepted.

I said, that's it. Too much time for this. Got enough friends. Goodbye.

That was 450 friends ago.

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