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What is social networking?

Book cover: Social networking for the older and wiserBy Sean McManus

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First published in U3A News, April 2010

Curious about where your old friends are now, or just looking for an easier way to keep in touch with the family? Sean McManus, author of Social Networking for the Older and Wiser, explains how the internet can help.

U3A News, April issue, where this article was first publishedDo you ever catch yourself wondering what happened to your old schoolmates or colleagues? In the last few years, more and more people have been getting in touch again with old friends - and staying in touch - using the internet.

That's been made easy thanks to the rise of social networking websites, which help people to share their news, photos, and home videos with their friends and family. People can chat and play games together on the internet, and organise real-world get-togethers, from a university reunion to a few drinks with the bridge club. Most importantly, people can search for each other and become 'online friends', so that they are kept informed about the goings-on in each other's lives. Whenever somebody adds a new message or photo to the website, all their friends can see it.

Pam Fitchett used social networking sites to find over 100 old school friends and organise a reunion, fifty years after she left school. "We were petrified; all anxious," she said. "It was like being 14 or 15 again. But it was absolutely amazing. We didn't have any music - we just spent the night talking."

Pam's advice to others thinking about organising a reunion? "Go for it! It's amazing to turn the clock back that many years and feel young again."

Whether you just want to start planning your reunion, organising your U3A group online or keeping tabs on the family, it's easy to get started. Social networking doesn't usually cost anything, and you don't even need your own computer if you can use one at the library.

There are lots of different social networking sites, which enable you to do different things with different groups of people. Facebook is the largest, with over 400 million active members. That's more than the population of the US and the UK combined, so there's a good chance some of your friends and family already use it.

Friends Reunited is one of the oldest social networking sites, and is particularly useful for finding old school friends in the UK.

Another popular site is Twitter, which enables people to publish short updates (just a sentence or two) about what they're doing or thinking. It's become such an important way to communicate that even the Prime Minister has an official Twitter account, with 1.7million people following his team's updates.

There are some specialist networks too: Saga Zone and Eons are aimed at the over-50s, and have over 700,000 members between them. There are also lots of social networking sites dedicated to specific hobbies, including genealogy, music, knitting and photography. These are great places to make new friends who share your interests.

If you're new to all this, it might seem odd to use a computer to socialise with people who aren't even in the same room as you, maybe not even in the same country. But you probably use email already, and you can think of social networking as an extension of that. Instead of having communications going from one person to another, your conversations can take place on a website, where your mutual friends can chip in. It's a bit like being at a party, with everyone jumping in with their thoughts, jokes and memories. You could put your holiday photos on the internet, only visible to your friends, and see where the conversation goes as people add their comments after each other. Or you could announce a new birth in the family by typing a message into Facebook for all your friends to see. Whether you have big news to share or just fancy a natter, social networking websites can help.

People like social networking for different reasons. If you're geographically isolated, or if you're unable to travel far, social networking can enable you to build close friendships without even leaving the house. Some people like the fact that they can switch on the computer at any time and see what their friends have been up to. For others, it's about being able to share their creative work, and their ideas, with a global audience.

It takes about half an hour to join a social network, and then you'll have all the tools at your disposal to track people down. Next time you find yourself wondering what happened to Bert who worked in the warehouse, or what your niece has been up to lately, you can stop wondering. Switch on the computer, get online, track them down, and get back in touch!

About my book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser

This article is bonus content for my book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser. Visit the homepage for Social Networking for the Older and Wiser for all bonus content, the table of contents and free chapters. For the latest news, join the Facebook fan page.

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©Sean McManus. www.sean.co.uk.