Worlds Colliding: My Mom's on Facebook!

BusinessWeek's Ryan explores sharing an online community with her daughter, and how Facebook and LinkedIn are similar yet different

If you think the Internet is a vast, unimaginably spacious environment, try sharing it with a 14-year-old. Especially your own 14-year-old daughter. If there ever was a 21st century situation that brought to mind the Old West warning "this town's not big enough for the both of us," it's finding your own mother on Facebook.

Now, I guess I can muster a small amount of pity for the only kid in her freshman high school class whose mom writes about online networking—and therefore has to stay on top of said kid's favorite tools, including Facebook and Twitter. But not too much pity—it's a digital world, and already oldsters are popping up on what once were the exclusive domains of kids (see, 8/6/07, "Fogeys Flock to Facebook").

Most Likely to Join

Now, I wasn't the one who initiated the "friend" relationship between me and my daughter on Facebook. She did it, claiming she wanted to keep an eye on me. Once she got over the horror of finding my profile on the site—"I thought LinkedIn was for your kind!" she fumed—she kindly introduced me to some of her favorite Facebook applications, including superlatives. These allow you to nominate a friend as "most likely to…" do everything from "walk into a pole" to "end up in prison," These superlatives are cute, but for my business friends, I'd need new categories: "embarrass him- or herself at a company outing" or "snag the CFO job at the next Google (GOOG) via Craigslist and end up owning an island."

Friend or Spammer?

Facebook, to be sure, has a ways to go before it'll have the businesslike look and feel of LinkedIn, but that's fine with me. The fact is, noodling around on Facebook is fun, and there's no reason why online networking should be tedious. Somehow, too, it seems to me—and I hope this effect continues as more business types flock to Facebook—that the invitation-spammers who plague LinkedIn may be less aggressive on a site that lays out the criteria for one-to-one connection so clearly (see, 8/6/07, "Confessions of a LinkedIn Dropout").

When a complete stranger on LinkedIn requests that I connect with him, I get to answer "Yes I will," "No I won't," or "I don't know this person." If I pick the last option, the casual inviter (some might say invite-spammer) gets a slight slap on the wrist. LinkedIn tracks those "I don't know this person"s (or, as aficionados call them, IDKs), and if you earn too many from your outbound link-to-me campaigns, your LinkedIn invitation privileges eventually will be suspended. (Some users feel LinkedIn could be more aggressive in combating invitation spam, but those are the folks known as "careful connectors," like me. There is a very active and vocal subset of LinkedIn users known as "lions," aka "open connectors," who would love nothing better than to connect to every other breathing LinkedIn user.)

Welcoming IDKs

I don't often invoke the dreaded IDK button, only because I'm bad with names. For people who can trust their memories to retain the names of everyone they'd consider "trusted colleagues," it's a good way to turn away unwanted invitations. But that said, I still prefer Facebook's method for dealing with connect-to-me overtures.

On Facebook, I'm asked instead, "Is it true that you and Joe Blow are friends?" It's easy to respond "no" if the name doesn't ring a bell.

The nonbusiness origins of Facebook show up at this stage: My choices for answers to the question, "how do you know Joe?" include "worked together," but not any other business connection, such as "met through business connections" or "talked about doing business together, but didn't in the end." What's nice is that the question is so specific: "Are you guys friends, or not?" I don't feel bad answering "no" if Joe and I aren't friends. If we're connected in some vague way (belong to the same e-mail group, met at a conference once), he can try his luck with a LinkedIn invitation.

High School Reunion

Meanwhile, my teenager is aghast and I'm having fun exploring her world of online connecting. I created a group on Facebook for people from my high school and was tickled to find dozens of Facebook users who list Montclair High School in their profiles—for the good reason that they're attending classes there right now. I'd invite them to join my group, but they might be alarmed to know that my high school buddy George is chair of their history department these days. Very likely, some of these kids have parents who went to that high school with me, back when Son of Sam was in the news. When those parents find their way to Facebook, our high school group will be waiting for them.

Facebook also gives its users a "wall," a very clever announcement that greets people when they visit a profile page. If that feature existed on LinkedIn, a user could announce "I report spammers" or the like. The last time I checked out my daughter's profile (only prudent), I saw that on her wall she'd written, "I am bored with high school." That prompted me to send her a private message saying: "Pumpkin, if you're bored after one week, you may want to find some coping techniques—you've got a long way to go."

She wrote back: "PUMPKIN!?!?! God, Mom, whatever!"

There was also a hissing command to take down the photos that I'd added to my Facebook photo album; she didn't want her friends to get a glimpse of her touring the Smithsonian with her brothers. Whatever!

As worlds collide on Facebook, will networks unite? No telling. But I am pleased that not only the MBA students at our local university (whom I addressed at their orientation last week) but the music students as well (whom I know through this summer's production of Man of La Mancha) are friends of mine on Facebook. If I keep up this way, meeting my children's generation on Facebook (via conversations like those facilitated by a group called "B*tch Please, I'm From Colorado"), my average connection's age will drop like a stone. And, steeped as I am in the business world of my own generation, how can that be a bad thing?

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