Socializing on the net
More adults following lead of younger generation

By LaReeca Rucker

In many ways Mary Elaine Smith is your typical Facebook user. She comments on photos, leaves messages on Facebook friends' "walls" and occasionally updates her profile.

Read it, and you'll learn she loves playing computer games, watching game shows, eating out, listening to anything "except hard rock or music that has bad words in it," and she has a man who spoils her.

But Smith is also different from many Facebook users who were predominantly U.S. college students until the site lifted user restrictions in 2006.

Since then, the 71-year-old Clinton resident is one of a growing number of adult social networkers connecting with friends and family online. She joined Facebook Aug. 31.

"Both of my sons are in the ministry, and it's nice to be able to communicate with them and their children this way," she said. "I'm still learning how to use it. I love to experiment."

Check out Hugh Martin's Facebook page, and you'll learn that he's pastor of Laurel Hill Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Miss., and a member of the online group My Pastor has a Facebook.

Since joining Aug. 29, Martin, 82, has made 33 Facebook friends, including Hattiesburg resident Glenn Jackson, who wrote, "You continue to impress me with your technology. Looking forward to working with you and your church soon" on Martin's Facebook "wall."

The minister added photos of churches he's worked at and visited, and he's received birthday wishes and inspiring words from friends and fellow pastors.

"Someone introduced it to me by e-mail," he said, "and I just got on it to stay in touch with family. I think it's a neat program for that reason.

"Some of the young people who were in the church where I served as pastor 15 or 20 years ago are now grown, married and have children of their own. One young lady had a baby Sept. 15, and that's my birthday, so we had quite a stir about that."

While most of Martin's friends are younger than he is, his 53-year-old daughter-in-law just joined Facebook, and he hopes his 86-year-old sister-in-law in Texarkana, Texas, will soon become a member.

According to a recent MarketTools Insight Report published by Marketing Vox, one in five adult online users say they visit online blogs, communities or social networks.

Brian Herrington, 40, became a fan of the social networking site Twitter 15 days ago and now has more than 20 people following his posts. Lately, he's been Tweeting about politics, Oklahoma City restaurants and his law firm.

He social networks as a method of nontraditionally growing his business and uses Twitter to keep up with headlines.

"Because The Clarion-Ledger, The New York Times and NPR are on Twitter, I can follow them and have all the headlines that are going on in the world on my desktop," he said. "That's how I found out about this story," said Herrington, who contacted The Clarion-Ledger when an inquiry was posted about the story topic.

He also uses Twitter to keep up with colleagues. "A lot of us blog now, so if people are writing about topics I litigate, it's a quick exchange of useful information."

Ridgeland resident Brian P. Ramsey, 34, started with MySpace, but liked the uniformity and privacy of Facebook best. He now has 431 Facebook friends.

"It's kind of like every day is a class reunion," he said. "There's one person I came across that I hadn't seen since elementary school."

Ramsey said politicians also have discovered the importance of Facebook, and a political dialogue is occurring there among users.

"I've been getting messages over Facebook from one of the campaigns," he said. "Several of my friends have been posting their opinions on different candidates and the economic crises."

Columbus resident Kay Fike Jones, a Mississippi State University publications editor, is also on Facebook.

"A lot of students asked why I wasn't, and I said, "I'm too old," Jones, 53, said. "But I got on Facebook a year or so ago because my niece was on it, as well as some MSU students I knew.

"It's fun to keep up with people and an easy way to share photos. I especially like the fact that I have been reunited with old friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in about 30 years.

"It's great to (read the status updates) and learn that people are taking out their garbage or baking cookies. And Facebook now has live chat. You can look in the lower right hand corner and see who's on when you are and chat with them live."

Jones hopes more adults will sign up. "People my age seem to think it is something for their children to do, not them," she said. "I think if they tried them, they would love the networking sites like I do."

Jackson resident Natalie Maynor, 65, is a retired Mississippi State University professor who joined Facebook a few months ago.

"Plenty of older people use it," she said. "One of the first things I did on Facebook was wish a friend a happy 84th birthday by writing on his wall."

Facebook is also a convenient way to convey information quickly to a group of friends, Maynor said.

"A month or so ago, I discovered at the last minute that I was going to Starkville for an early afternoon funeral. I wanted to see some of my old MSU colleagues at lunch, but didn't have time to communicate that to them individually.

"So I went to Facebook and used the 'What are you doing right now?' space to say that I was about to leave for Starkville for the funeral and hoped to see friends in the MSU cafeteria at 11:30. Some of those friends saw that and were there."

Jackson resident Pamela K. Jones, 48, likes that Facebook enables you to socially network as much or little as you want.

"You can go dormant for a little while if you're on vacation or have a lot of things going on," she said. "If you want to do a lot of status comments, you can do that too, or you may just want to be a reader for a while and find out what everyone is doing."

While some find the Internet impersonal, Jones believes the opposite to be true.

"I think that one of the things people really like about Facebook is that (my Facebook friends) have gotten to know me in ways that they did not get to know me previously because they can read my profile of quotes, likes, dislikes and the things that are important to me," she said. "That's not to minimize face-to-face contact, but there are a lot of things that you can learn on Facebook that you might not face-to-face."

Wisconsin native Karen Lindsey-Lloyd, who is in her 40s, joined Facebook two years ago after relocating to Mississippi. The site helped her reconnect with a sorority sister she hadn't seen in a decade, and it's been a beneficial work tool for the Mississippi College director of career services.

"The people I want to reach are all on Facebook, so I felt like I needed to be there," she said. "The students may not look at a flier I distribute, but I can create different events and pages that might be of interest to them."

While some students appreciate the fact that Lindsey-Lloyd has entered "their world," others abide by the generational separatist idea, "Don't trust anyone over 30."

"Some of the young people I have talked to have felt a little bit like old people are using Facebook to spy on us," she said, "so we have to be wise about how we use it and make it clear that we are there for our own social networking purposes."

It's also wise to remember that social networking sites are not entirely private, Lindsey-Lloyd said.

"Just like we tell kids to be responsible, adults need to be responsible too," she said. "Be classy and careful."