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Twittering, friending, texting… the faced-paced world of social networking has its own language and set of rules. Here’s what you need to know

illustration by matt collins

Somebody keeps changing the book of rules. It seems to happen overnight, too. What used to be regarded as proper manners with an electronic device suddenly becomes passé. Some of the changes are to the good, to be sure. Those loudmouth “cell yellers” on the morning train, for instance, have been effectively silenced in recent years and beaten about the heads with rolled up copies of the Wall Street Journal. But in other areas of our lives the furious cascade of electronic devices is changing everything.

Take the office meeting, where the legal pad full of doodles has been replaced by the open laptop full—of what? “At first, it was only at someplace like IBM where you saw the open laptops,” says a local market analyst who freelances for them. “IBM people liked to think of themselves as being what they called ‘on the grid.’ And it was as if every meeting had three levels of reality: the people actually talking; the stuff they were getting on their laptops; and the private messages they were beaming back and forth to each other on their PDAs. So the person seated next to you was actually involved in a whole different conversation besides what he was saying to those in the room.”



Six years ago, she says, that behavior was regarded as rare and eccentric. Now it’s almost commonplace. Unless, of course, your boss forbids the Blackberry on the table, and then you’ll have to sneak it in on your lap like a furtive schoolkid. And Lord knows what it will be like in another few years as today’s hot-wired kids enter the workforce.

Take the case of Bill R., a local father. (He’s nameless here, explaining, “My kids would shoot me on the spot if I was quoted about this in GREENWICH Magazine.”) Two years ago he and his teenage daughter had a tremendous argument when she just would not get off the family computer. The girl was oblivious to his words, lost in some faraway universe as she batted away on a string of instant

The situation had Bill really stumped. This sort of thing was not in any rule book he knew about. So he went downstairs and threw the power switch, thereby ending her computer conversation. In the screaming fit that followed, it gradually came out that his daughter had been trying to talk her boyfriend out of breaking up with her.

Now he was really confused. An intense conversation like that, conducted via IMs? “I learned a few things,” Bill says now. “First, kids find an electronic conversation somehow less threatening. And when kids are locked in that conversation, they just don’t hear you.”

What he witnessed was the raw power of Internet addiction up close. He’d seen it at the office, where men snuck in computer games and women shopped online. But here it was in his home. With his kid.

“That was two years ago,” Bill reports. “It hasn’t come up lately, but I realized just the other day why. She no longer IMs; she just texts messages all day on her iTouch.”

By now the texting teen is a part of the after-school ritual. Just stand outside Greenwich High School when school lets out and watch them meander along, thumbs punching the PDAs. You only hope that they don’t meet the fate of Alexa Longueira, the Staten Island girl, fifteen, who last month walked into an open five-foot-deep sewer while texting. She was only banged up, but of course there have been a number of more serious automobile accidents lain at the door of the texting obsession.

“It’s a nightmare,” avers Jo Frame, assistant principal at Central Middle School. “The kids know how to text without looking under the desks, so they can get the answer to question seven.”

At Central Middle, all electronic devices are heavily “discouraged,” but not forbidden; in other words kids can use them in the lunchroom but not the classroom. “We take them away,” Jo says, “and I have a box in the office marked Parent Pickup. If the parent signs a paper that says this won’t happen again, they get it back. If it happens again, I tell them they can come pick it up on graduation day.”
Greenwich schools begin the process early. “We’ve just introduced a new curriculum,” says Fran Kompar, media tech coordinator for the Greenwich School system, “and one of the strands is called Digital Citizenship.” The dangers of cyber-bullying, stalkers and predators are up for discussion almost as soon as the kids first enter school.” As for the rugged task of limiting total screen time, that is up to the parents.
“Electronic devices are both a wonderful teaching tool and a great distraction,” says Chris Winters, headmaster of Greenwich High. “We see them more as a distraction and haven’t spent enough time learning how to turn them to our advantage.”

Students are allowed to bring devices to school but not to class. “At test time,” Winters says, “we’re very careful. We’ve had several incidents of kids trying to send answers to each other. Or photos.”

Why allow them in school at all? “A lot of parents,” he confesses with a touch a wariness, “are accustomed to being able to reach their kids anytime of the day.”

Come the Revolution
Computer technology used to be ruled by something called Moore’s Law, a notion devised in the 1960s that said that computer chips will get twice as powerful every two years. No one talks about this much anymore, since gargantuan memory is available now for a pittance. (Indeed, you can buy one terabyte of memory now for eighty bucks.) But we need something to describe how fast the accepted rules change.

It might all sound frightening, if not overwhelming, until someone reminds you of the good things happening. The positive side of the media revolution, points out Fran Kompar, can be seen in the recent Iranian election, where an angry population reacted to an apparently fraudulent election (the votes were, ironically, hand-counted) by organizing protests through the new electronic media. The Web, in brief, is a serious rival to totalitarianism. 

Here in this country, politicians have to acknowledge the style change brought by President Obama, a known Blackberry devotee. His very election was greatly helped by a staff that knew how to harness the enormous fund-raising potential of the Internet.

It is worth pondering which future presidential election will be affected by another Internet revelation, by which we mean, of course, the lurid photo posted on Facebook. We can only look forward to a race where the “stunning revelations” include pics of the candidate as a drunken teenager curled up on the bathroom floor.

Since the rules are changing, however, with such lightning speed, this very question might seem quaint. Everybody’s craziness will be out there for all to see, so who cares anymore?

Only a few years ago, certain schools around Connecticut were warning kids not to go on MySpace. One school in Norwalk actually patrolled MySpace, and if administrators found their students were on it, the kids were disciplined. While the MySpace phenomenon might be largely spent, electronic social networking seems to gain a million converts a day. And the schools are gradually giving in. In Greenwich schools, kids are even being taught how to construct blogs and podcasts.

Got Privacy?
Ten years ago, Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems, famously said: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Not everyone, however, wants to assume he’s correct in stating we all now live in a post- privacy world. 

Many people—especially teenagers— seem to take the old you-can’t-fight-city-hall approach to having their information on the Web. It is well known that the major players in our computer age, including Sun, Microsoft, Facebook and Google, run vast data centers dedicated to harvesting a million bits of personal information. How can we possibly fight them? Heck, we can’t even fight the guy at thecorner muffler shop. 

Maybe we shouldn’t automatically cave, as McNealy seemed to suggest. Many Web users have preferred to take a stand. When you’re registering on a site, for example, why use your correct date of birth and mother’s actual maiden name? Why not say that your mother’s maiden name was Bubbles?

On a municipal level, should a city put all of its public information on the cyber billboard? Not in this town. Floor plans and blueprints of Greenwich homes are not placed automatically online, says assessor Ted Gwartney.

“It was decided by the board of estimate and taxation that we should not put personal information into the online computer system. We’re the only town in Fairfield County that does not offer this service and one of the few in the state. But it was felt that Greenwich was unique in that you have some particularly valuable properties.”

And what about that somewhat larger city in the universe called Facebook? The numbers tell it: More than 300 million people subscribe to Facebook. Lest you think, Gee, that’s two out of three Americans, do be aware that, thanks to language protocols, about 70 percent of its members are outside of America. That might seem like an utterly wonderful new universal bonding experience—until you ask how many of those 300 million are scam artists.

Face it. Facebook is like any other page of the Internet. It’s open to meddling. If someone puts an embarrassing wedding video of
you up on YouTube, it’s not hard to get it removed. But Facebook?  If you enter those portals, can you ever get out?  

Since its members regard the site as a personal scrapbook, they get quite angry when Facebook gets a little high-handed. Two years ago, Facebook caused a riot of protests when it introduced Beacon, which sent messages to your friends telling them about your online purchases. Earlier this year, a similar uproar developed when it changed its Terms of Service to essentially say: You put it up on here, we own it in perpetuity.

Why would they do things like this? For one thing, it’s not exactly a hugely profitable company. (It has been “valued” at $15 billion, but that’s only based on Microsoft’s investment of $240 million for a 1.6 percent share, not on any profit flow.) So its brain trust is clearly trying to figure out how to use the data that’s accumulating in its digital shoebox. In the last two scandals, Facebook saw that it was necessary to back down—at least a little.

In the meantime, Facebook users are cautioned to really get to know the various privacy settings offered by the site. This is especially true for, ahem, older users who only recently learned that the word “friend” is also a verb and who want to use Facebook for business as well as all the cyber-socializing.

Don’t want your Facebook horseplay showing up on Google? Go to privacy settings and search for “visibility.” Find the line that says “Create a public search listing for me and submit it for search engine indexing.” Uncheck that box. Save your changes. Also make sure that the photos you put up are “tagged” correctly on your profile privacy page, so that only friends, for instance, can see the photos of you setting fire to Cancun. 

Similarly, if you want business people to see your work email address and phone numbers, but do not want to share these with all 894 friends who share your Jonas Brothers fetish, go to contact information and hit “edit.” Customize those privacy settings.
There may come a day when Facebook joins the rank of the half-forgotten, à la Usenet groups and AOL chat rooms. Should you want to exit Facebook, you can delete your photos and so on, but you never know, of course, who has copied your stuff to a folder faraway. This is simply the deal we make online.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave an address recently in which he opined that computers will be as thin and flexible as a sheet of paper in just ten years. Furthermore, he said, computers and search engines will be able to “intuit” what you want. Well, computer intuition might be nothing more than a vast cloud of data, harnessed for work.

Larger Danger
One of the unspoken hazards of our tumultuous electronics age might not be a security issue at all. It might actually be a sort of insecurity that comes from not having time for fulfilling human relationships.

This is the theory of Greenwich-based psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld. He has talked to a lot of folks in our town, including some very successful people, and concludes that what people really need is just a good, old-fashioned dose of human warmth. “I think people are desperate for intimacy, for closeness,” he says. “But it’s very hard in our culture today to get intimacy. I think it’s what people are most hungry for and have the most difficulty finding.

 “Take Facebook. How can you have 683 friends? Or Twitter? What happens is, there’s a kind of faux intimacy. ‘I know everything about you—but I really know nothing about who you are or your real self.’ You have a lot of conversations with people, but you don’t really learn anything about them. They’re so quick—there’s no depth to them.

“I’m in a field where I have a fondness for a thing called reflection,” he says with a laugh. (Rosenfeld has, by the way, a warm, infectious laugh.) “And I don’t see how this in any way supports or advocates anything reflective. But it takes time to convince people of this.”

Then he cautions: “If you don’t feel close to someone, then you feel terribly alone and there’s a void.” Unable to share things with trusted friends, people develop secret lives. “They don’t really know that they’re holding secrets inside themselves. People need to find someone they can talk to, who will listen and share themselves. A lot of social networking is an effort to approximate that. So if I spill all the details of my life, I’m going to get close to you.”

The remedy? The good doctor knows that no one will be leaving their electronics behind and subscribing to Amish doctrines. But, as he counsels in his book, The Overscheduled Child, one thing that should be put into that electronic planner is simply “unproductive time.”

“Put the electronics aside,” he says, smiling. “Take walks, shoot hoops, go fishing, do anything that has no goal in mind. Humans are simple creatures. Be unproductive with your kids.”

The debate will go on. For every reader who says yes, we must factor in some Thoreau time. There will be another reader who recently rediscovered some lost inner-self in some online room and that’s too exciting to ignore. Inner space will meld with cyberspace and all will be revealed. 

If you don’t like it, just wait a couple of years. It will all be entirely different.