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Online Extra: The Networked Life of a 21-Year-Old


To report a story on social networks, BusinessWeek recruited summer intern and expert network surfer Paula Lehman, 21, to teach reporter Jessi Hempel how to navigate the social networks. Lehman gives this account:

When Jessi and I started working on this story, the most obvious place to begin was the social networks themselves. Jessi updated and revived her old profile on Friendster and, sitting at a desk a few steps away, requested that I be added as a friend via the site's friend-request option. I cyber-accepted and went straight to Jessi's profile, the online account of the many personal details of her life.

Work and pleasure immediately collided with an ugly clash. Through break-time coffees and casual lunches, I had gotten to know Jessi pretty well, but the testimonials posted by her friends were far more colorful than the stories I had heard. I had scratched the surface of the Jessi I'd known as the tough-hitting reporter a little deeper than I had intended. All of a sudden, I knew everything -- from her tae kwon do hobby to her ability to throw a tremendous barbecue at her Brooklyn apartment.

SATURDAY NIGHT STUFF. I realized immediately that I had left myself open to the same investigation. So, when I signed Jessi up for Facebook, the online social network I use the most, I refused to teach her how to navigate it properly. The extended profile on Facebook is far more incriminating than the one I had on Friendster, and it's updated by other friends fairly regularly.

There are some things you don't want your boss to know, after all. Jessi's tae kwon do has nothing on my friends' public postings on Saturday night. You get the idea.

Right now, Jessi has seven friends on Facebook. I have 205, which is a low number compared to many of my classmates. (But through friends, I'm connected to 4,855 other people.) Now, not all 205 will call me Friday night to hang out. For the most part, they're friends from classes and friends of friends.

HIGH-SPEED FRIENDSHIPS. More often than not, our online relationship exceeds our offline relationship. But we all like to catch up on who's dating who, find our long-lost friends, and exchange not-so-valuable information such as music and movie faves. Like our AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), it allows us to carry out an infinite number of connections at once -- high-speed friendships to keep up with our high-speed lives.

I think Facebook has succeeded for the 18- to 25-year-old audience because it has sped up the pace with which you can find old and new friends, and open the grounds for communication. There's an overwhelming need for constant connection -- to the extent that none of us can remember how we got on without cell phones, which really didn't even catch on until the end of high school.

I studied abroad for a semester in Australia and left with some AIM screen names but no numbers or addresses. I've since been able to locate my close friends through Facebook, call them on the cell-phone numbers they provided on their profile, and talk to them on AIM. All I needed was a name and a school.

NO BIG DEAL. Jessi isn't even 10 years older than me, yet our methods of social interaction are vastly different. For Jessi, networks such as Facebook are innovative. In the mornings, she reaches for her cell phone and jumps on AIM, and she's "plugged in."

But online networking is just part of everyday life for my friends and me, so we tend not to really notice it. We turn on our computers -- if we ever really turned them off -- the automatic sign-in puts up our AIM Buddy List on the right side of our screen, the Internet opens, and we are instantly connected to a global network of acquaintances through online groups and e-mail. Our Sidekicks or cell phones beep with text messages so that, even away from our computers, we won't miss anything.

Admittedly, I had to explain to Jessi what an "emo kid" is and why the boys wear women's jeans. Still, the greatest gap between our social fears is undoubtedly a technological one. Even now, I think she's just a little bit more plugged in. Despite my efforts to thwart her, she learned to use Facebook. And this week, I even invited her to be my 206th friend.


Ebola Rising
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