Facebooking at 40

Alumna mom weighs the pleasures and perils of joining the ubiquitous social networking site.

Facebooking Illustration

"Everybody's doing it."

From the moment I decided to join the ranks of Facebook faithful earlier this year, I had the strange feeling that I'd been here before - in junior high school. Everyone was doing it, and when I took the plunge into Facebook too, suddenly the phrase "peer pressure" popped back into my 40-something lexicon like an unwelcome blast from my big-hair past.

As soon as I began to create my profile, I was overcome by waves of social awkwardness that I hadn't felt in more than two decades. Should I reveal my religious affiliation? Should I proclaim to the world (and my white-bread, small-town Republican community) that I was a proud Democrat? Should I admit that my favorite TV show (and my kids') is Little People, Big World? And then there was that dreaded profile photo. Should I post a photo of myself at the weight I am now or the weight I was 20 pounds ago?

I'm ashamed to say I didn't make any of those decisions until I scouted around Facebook to find out what other people were doing. Where had my mature self-confidence gone? (Probably to the same place that convinced me I should definitely post the photo of myself 20 pounds ago.)

Facebook also quickly reminded me that, like in junior high school, my success in this new social environment was measured by the number of "friends" I could accumulate. Within the first 24 hours of posting my profile, I had at least 50 friends. I friended my current friends, my past acquaintances, my faraway friends, my old boyfriends, my high school nemeses. Shockingly, they all wanted to be my friend on Facebook. I felt like Sally Field giving her famous Oscar speech from the 1980s: "You like me! Right now, you like me!" It felt like junior high school vindication.

As I delved more deeply into this new social environment, I was surprised to find so many people my age who were Facebooking all day, every day. Didn't we have better things to do with our time, like working, raising kids and taking care of aging parents? Apparently not, because everyone certainly was doing it.

And I could now see why. With just one five-minute sweep of my Facebook page each morning, I could become intimately aware of the daily comings and goings of people I hadn't heard from in years. Almost like a voyeur, I could watch their lives unfold. It felt vaguely inappropriate to know so much about people I'd barely spoken to over the past 25 years, yet it felt juicy, too. There was no mistaking the sense of social connection.

But I could also see the downside of Facebook for people who have moved beyond the tell-all teenage years. Facebook seems like a midlife crisis waiting to happen - flames old and new could secretly ignite via daily updates and intimate peeks at photos, likes and dislikes, and favorite shows, music and groups. Facebook has even more immediacy than e-mail and much more visual stimulation. In the past it would have taken a major turn of fate to reconnect with your old high school sweetheart, but with Facebook, all you have to do is type a name, send a quick, "Hi, what have you been up to for the past 25 years?" and see where it goes from there.

As a mature adult, you could also run into trouble on Facebook through TMI (text-speak for "too much information"). Revealing the details of your daily existence is fine when you're chatting only to friends, but you'd better watch out when you're revealing to friends of friends of friends, or when you're allowing your posts to be seen by professional colleagues. One misguided photo posted by a friend of a friend, and your career could veer off track.

I saw easily that Facebook could definitely be fraught with drama when both parents and their kids are intertwined on the site. Several parents I know have avoided Facebook altogether, some because it just seems uncomfortable to participate in an obviously teenage hangout, but most because the teenagers themselves outright forbade their parents to enter the community. There was no way they wanted their parents invading the private world they'd built on Facebook. I could understand their point of view, and I am grateful that my own kids aren't yet of Facebook age.

I was very active on Facebook for the first couple of months after I joined. Then the novelty of the voyeurism wore off, and I began to feel more pressure to respond to e-mails and posts, friend requests and "join this cause" invitations. My inbox was overflowing, and this was on top of all the other e-mails, texts and voice mails I had to manage as a part of my non-Facebook life. So my participation dwindled off, and today I just check Facebook every once in awhile. I find that everybody's still doing it, and so am I. But I'm doing it on my terms now.

Patty Dowd Schmitz (J89, GJ90) is a marketing communications strategist in Barrington, Ill.

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