Win my love: The cheat sheet

I know that you are supposed to like or love people based on their character or their soul, but that shit takes a lot of time to figure out. It’s much more efficient to quickly categorize people as loveable, likeable or deeply suspicious based on their surface traits.

Like many people, I have a few such heuristics, so I might as well come clean about them:

Instant love Qualified Like Deal breaker
Coffee preference Black coffee, no sugar Latte or cappuccino Caramel or any other cream-and-flavor combo that suggests you’re trying to turn your coffee into a milkshake
Email address  you@yourname.com  yourname@gmail.com cutesy_nickname@anything.com
Mobile number Matches your home or work number Is your only number  None*
Name Something you chose for yourself as an adult  Alliterative or hard to spell So common that nobody can find you on Google, and you like it that way
Preferred metaphors Star Trek Dating and romance  Sports
Favorite book A novel about the legacy of colonialism, told from multiple perspectives (e.g. The Poisonwood Bible, Crossing the River, Cloud Atlas) A recent or classic work of literary science fiction  The Secret Life of Bees

*Friends I’ve had since before there were cell phones are grandfathered in, and exempt from this standard.

Of course, now that I’ve confessed to these little prejudices, it’s now possible to game your way into my heart. But hey, why not jump in with me: what are the weird little signs that let you instantly know when you’re going to like someone?

Love in flames: finding the joy in hostile comments

“I don’t know why you care about the shit that a bunch of total strangers say about you on the Internet.”

This was my mom’s delightfully candid and potentially comforting response to this week’s comment eruption on my Harvard Business Review post. My mom is quite an extraordinary person, but her most extraordinary trait may be her almost complete imperviousness to other people’s judgements. I’ve never met anyone who is less perturbed by what other people say or think about her, and while I’m not remotely in her league, her influence is the main reason I can muster the courage to write the occasional provocative blog post.

That said, a day with 100 critical blog comments does send me to the wine bottle when I get home, and leaves me reflecting on whether it’s worth enduring an online onslaught. When people I don’t know tweet that I’m a f***ing idiot, it’s tempting to throw a little pity party, and forget that I was well aware my post was likely to elicit a strong reaction — though I anticipated strong reactions on both sides of the spectrum, as I’ve seen on Twitter, rather than the almost entirely negative pile-on that’s occurred on the HBR comment thread.

It’s even more tempting to take the comfort my mom offered: to simply write off the hostility as the inconsequential utterances of people who I don’t know, and who don’t count, because they are people I’ve never met face-to-face.

But undervaluing online interactions is the exact opposite of what I advocate every time I ask people to stop distinguishing between online life and “real life”. For our online lives to be meaningful and constructive, we have to embrace them as real. And that means embracing the critical, hostile and difficult conversations as real, too, even if it would be easier to dismiss online critics as online strangers.

The fact that I experience online interactions as very real makes a week like this a little bumpy (thus the wine). But the agony of the bumps pales in comparison to the joy that’s come with them: the joy of hearing from so many old and new friends, almost all online.

In the past two days, I’ve received Facebook messages from friends like the seasoned editor who welcomed me into the fold of writers who’ve survived reader outrage. I’ve heard from a high school friend who reminded me how much she loved my writing….all the way back to grade 7! I’ve had a call out of the blue from a former colleague I’ve stayed in touch with only through email and Twitter, encouraging me to take a break from the comment thread for the sake of my own sanity. I’ve received encouraging tweets and DMs from friends and colleagues I know well, and from people I’m connecting with for the first time through this mini-controversy. And I’ve heard from friends who love me enough not only to reach out, but to share their honest and sometimes critical responses to both my argument and the tone of the post.

It’s well established that humans pay a lot more attention to negative feedback than to positive, so it would be natural if these reminders of love and community were overshadowed by hurt or shame at being called a few names. The miracle of this week is that I’ve experienced the opposite: I’m so deeply touched by the warm messages I’ve received that the love has dramatically overshadowed the criticism.

Plowing through the occasional online shitstorm is a near-inevitable part of writing online, and I knew that this week might get windy when I wrote that post. What I manage to forget, between storms, is how much energy it takes to go though them — energy I get from the support and engagement of the people I know and love. I feel like the luckiest person in the world for having such wonderful friends and colleagues, and for living in a moment and medium that allow their loving expression to find me online across distances of time and space.

When we embrace the reality and significance of our online interactions, we not only let in the joy that comes from web-enabled love; we also start to eat at the roots of online hostility. The derogatory flames on this week’s post were the ones that read like folks had forgotten they were talking to or about a human being; the engaging comments (including a great many well-argued criticisms) were the ones that sounded like they came from real people, talking to a real person.

These real conversations are what make the Internet worth living in and engaging with, whether it’s bringing you criticism or love. Because we’re not online strangers. We’re real-life people.

3 practices that restore the meaning of friendship on Facebook

Do you insert audible air quotes when you talk about your Facebook “friends”? If so, it’s time to strip away those air quotes and get serious about your online friends, on Facebook and beyond.

That’s part of the commitment to embracing your real online life that I’ll be talking about tomorrow at TEDxVictoria. My TEDx talk jumps off from a blog post I originally wrote for Harvard Business Review about the 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life. So this seems like a good moment to return to the series I started then, fleshing out each of the 10 reasons.

Today I want to tackle the idea of real friendship:

When you treat your Facebook connections as real friends instead of “friends”, you stop worrying about how many you have and focus on how well you treat them.

There are three essential practices that will help you restore some value to the meaning of friendship, however Facebook has cheapened it.

  1. Separate your Facebook brand from your Facebook profileIf you use Facebook for professional purposes, you may be focused on racking up your friend count because you use Facebook as a professional communications, p.r. or marketing channel. Maybe your work would benefit from a big Facebook following, but if so, create a separate Facebook page for professional purposes. (If you’re not creating the page for a specific business or organization, you can choose “artist, band or public figure” and choose the most appropriate profile type for you.)  Use this page as your hub for Facebook outreach and marketing, and use its URL anywhere you’d normally promote your Facebook profile: your blog, your business card or your other social network profiles. Once you’ve got a Facebook presence that’s designed for professional use, you can reclaim your personal profile as the realm of real friendship.
  2. Set a standard for friend requestsEvery time you accept a Facebook friend request from someone you don’t know, or don’t know well, or maybe don’t even like, you’re cheapening the notion of friendship. If you want your online friendships to feel real to you, you’ve got to treat a friend request as if it actually means something. What it means is up to you: set clear criteria for who you will accept as a friend, whether you limit it to people who would put their lives on the line for you, or simply to anyone who knows you well enough to see you in your pjs. Only accept people who meet your criteria, and you’ll be well on the way to restoring some meaning to the notion of friendship.
  3. Make different friend lists for different groups of friendsEvery friendship is different: you may be very close to the woman in the next cubicle at work, but that doesn’t mean you’d tell her the same things you’d share with your best friend from high school. Online, you’ve got an even greater variety of relationships to deal with: in addition to all the usual variations of work friends, old friends, neighbours, etc., you’re dealing with the nuances of some friendships that may exist entirely online, others that date to a long offline history, and some that are true on/offline hybrids. Depending on the nature of each relationship, you’re going to be comfortable sharing different updates, jokes and pictures. So create a list of friends for each kind of content you’d like to share, or each of level of intimacy:  a list for people with whom you want to share family news, a list for the friends who actually like your Star Wars puns, a list for people with whom you’ll share your raciest stories. (Find out how to create a list here.)

Taken together, these three practices will allow you to become more selective about who you accept as a Facebook friend, and to be more targeted about who gets to read or see what. Most important, it will allow you to restore a sense of integrity to the word “friend”, to get rid of those air quotes, and to embrace your online friendships as very, very real.

How Social Media Can Sustain Your Friendships (from Oprah.com)

This blog post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

“I’m writing because I’m an old friend of Angel J.,” the e-mail said. “I see from your site that you know her; can you put us in touch?”

It wasn’t the first time we’d served as a point of reintroduction. Our wedding photos, posted in 2000, constituted the first searchable online appearance for many of our guests. But Angel’s face wasn’t in our wedding photos; in fact ,her face wasn’t on our site at all. What her friend had found were the medical photos of Angel’s gum reconstruction procedure. Angel thought the pictures were funny and gross, and when she showed them to us, she loved our suggestion that we put them on our website.
One lesson you might draw from this is to never give incriminating photos to someone with their own website. But the lesson I want you to draw is that it’s fantastic to have your friends write about you—to do whatever makes you visible or findable on the net. Unless you’re in witness protection or have a stalker in your past, it’s better to be findable, because findability is the easiest way to encourage continuity in your personal relationships. But, of course, any story of online (re)connection involves at least two people: the findee and the finder. Connecting, reconnecting and staying connnected require some effort on both sides.

Here’s how social media can help you stay in touch:

Be Google-able
If you Google “Alexandra Samuel,” you’ll probably find I account for nine out of 10 of the first-page results. But for years, my Google hegemony was disrupted by another Alexandra Samuel, who hovered in the number two or three spot. Her presence? A long-ago article about a ten-year-old Alexandra who was a member of the Boston Computer Club.

Little Alex didn’t do much to compromise my Googlability. “Alexandra Samuel” is an uncommon enough name, and my online presence—including the alexandrasamuel.com domain—is extensive enough that I’ve always been easy to Google. My husband wasn’t as lucky. When he first tried to register his domain, not only was robcottingham.com taken, but so were robertcottingham.com and even robertalancottingham.com! The lesson here: Don’t name your kids until you’re sure their names are available as .com domains. If your own parents weren’t that far-sighted, establish a domain and online identity using a consistent and unique variant of your name, such as JohnNorbertSmith or LauraQThompson.

Keep Your Contacts Up to Date
Most people change their phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses from time to time; once you’ve been out of touch long enough to miss a move or two, it can be hard to re-establish contact. Get all your current e-mail addresses into a couple of systems that will help keep your contact information up-to-date; Plaxo will automatically update your contact list with changes from anyone else who is a Plaxo user; gmail will import your contact list into other web services like Twitter and Facebook so you can stay in touch instead of losing contact.

Be Persistent
Establish one absolutely permanent e-mail address, ideally by registering your own domain name.

Create Online Groups for Your Valued Circles of Friends or Family
My dad was married four times and had nine kids in two countries—if social networking didn’t exist, we would have had to invent it just to keep everybody in touch. Sadly, my dad went his entire life without ever once having all his kids in the same room. We got close for his 75th birthday: seven out of nine kids, and eight out of nine grandchildren all got together for a big party at his farm. After the party, my sister Debbie set up a Facebook group that helped us all stay in loose, regular contact for the first time. Once Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we had the additional complexity of figuring out how to share updates on his health status. Because we kids were raised in three different batches, we didn’t all know each other well enough to share emotionally sensitive news on his illness. So we set up a Google spreadsheet with everybody’s contact information; that way any one of us would know how to to contact someone in each of the other two batches to pass on the latest news.

I’ll admit my family is probably more complicated than most circles in which you need to share news or information, but the same principle applies: For any circle you want to maintain or stay in touch with, set up a group using Facebook, Yahoo! groups or some other standard group-messaging tool. And set up a contact list that everyone can keep up to date.

Hail All Channels
Even apparently similar tools have very different dynamics, depending on how you and your friends use them; using a range of communications tools will support a range of relationships. I’m on Twitter constantly, but because people tend to tweet publicly, it works best for friendships that consist of casual and frequent exchanges. I connect with relatively few people through instant messaging, so my messaging buddies are people I’m happy to have extended conversations with while we’re working away on other things. A Skype video chat is a nice step up from phone calls with friends I connect with a few times a year, or for phone conversations with long-distant buddies. E-mail works well for exchanging long catch-ups with friends I can’t talk with in real time due to time zones. And Facebook is nice for reconnecting with people I wouldn’t otherwise catch up with—we float into each other’s views thanks to status updates.

Go Analog
I recently made a shocking discovery about two of my friends. These are women I thought I knew well. Women who are friends, not despite my geekiness, but because of it. They carry iPhones, update their Facebook pages daily and check their e-mail every hour. And yet, both of them still regularly exchange actual pen-on-paper letters with a number of their friends. Even if you’re not prepared to do something as retro and extreme as picking up a ballpoint—I personally resort to paper only in the case of birthday cards, thank-yous and condolence notes—you can still stay in touch with your less-wired friends. Take excerpts from your family blog and turn them into a paper newsletter you send out with your holiday greeting cards. Burn your favorite videos onto a DVD and pop it in the mail. Buy a Wi-Fi-enabled digital picture frame for your parents and keep it automatically updated with photos of the grandkids that you load onto Flickr or Facebook.


Keep it Loose

Many years ago, I had a painful breakup with what was then my very closest girlfriend. As anyone who’s been through it can tell you, the end of a close friendship is every bit as painful as the end of a romantic relationship—perhaps more so, because there’s no script to tell you how to handle it. After several years of zero contact, we became Facebook friends, and I was able to appreciate the very limited contact that made possible: While our friendship is history, I can stay loosely up to date on her very full and happy life. When your friendships are strained by conflict, distance or simply the passage of time, the loose contact of social networks and e-mail can keep them on life support against the day when geography or circumstance makes reconnection possible.

Embrace Intermittence
During a recent visit to Toronto, I had a chance to see an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in years. We hadn’t broken up: We’d just gotten jobs, gotten married, gotten kids. We were busy, and we didn’t have a lot of time for phone calls or even for Facebook. And that lack of contact made me shy about reaching out. But I took a deep breath and sent an e-mail—and received an enthusiastic response to the possibility of a coffee date. Within five minutes of sitting down together, we were back to the same level of conversational intensity that had fostered our original friendship.

If you want social media to support your friendships, you need to think about both sides of the equation: how to be findable, and how to track down (and keep up with) the friends you want to find in turn. The beauty of these new tools is that they make it easier and easier to handle the logistics of maintaining friendships—you can focus on the part that matters: the emotional connection.

How do you use social media to connect with friends and family? Share your thoughts on Oprah.com.

4 ways online communication can build relationships

Dear Alex: The Internet can be good for relationships.

No, it’s not an affirmation. It’s the argument I’d like to make to Alex Lickerman, who recently wrote a post about the Effect of Technology on Relationships for his blog on Psychology Today. While I applaud his concern for the Internet’s impact on human connection, I’m frustrated to find yet another thoughtful commenter seeing social media as a net negative rather than a potential positive:

We may enjoy online relationships using social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, for example, but the difference between these kinds of interactions and interactions with people in the physical world is clearly vast. As long as we
expect no more from these online relationships than they can give, no good reason exists why we can’t enjoy the power of social media sites to connect us efficiently to people we’d otherwise not touch. The problem, however, comes when we find ourselves subtly substitutingelectronic relationships for physical ones or mistaking our electronic relationships for physical ones.

The specific concerns that the other Alex raises are perfectly legitimate, like the challenges of conveying the emotional content of a message that’s delivered electronically, or the dangers of saying something hurtful because you don’t realize how your text will be read. But his caution and concern keep him from appreciating the incredible potential for connection and self-discovery that are available online, if one only attends to the opportunities as well as the dangers.

In that spirit, I’d like to propose 4 positive guidelines that correspond to Lickerman’s 4 cautionary rules for online communications:

  1. Alex L. says: Don’t say anything on email you’d feel uncomfortable saying to someone in person. My advice: Use online communication to share words of kindness or appreciation.

    So much of our day-to-day communication is rushed and functional. You’re in a staff meeting, and you’re focused on the next steps rather than what was accomplished to date. Your son calls from college and you remember to ask about classes but not about how he’s doing with his roommate.  Your wife calls from her out-of-town trip and you check in on this weekend’s plans rather than how her day went.

    Online communication can be your second chance. It’s often in the quiet moments of the day that I reflect on what went well, the questions I forgot to ask, or the appreciation I forgot to convey. That’s when I stop to send an e-mail that explains just how much I liked that last piece of work my colleague did, and why I think it will have lasting impact. Or to drop by a friend’s Facebook page and tell her that I was thinking about her today, and remembering this wonderful thing she did during our last road trip together. Or to send a one-line tweet cheering a staff member for her extraordinary work, in a way that gives her public credit.

    If you find yourself too rushed or uncomfortable in-person to weigh in with all the kinds of thoughtful, kind and loving words that are in your heart, use your online communications to be your best and warmest self.

  2. Alex L. says: Don’t delay your response to messages you’d rather avoid. My advice: Use online communications as an ally for difficult conversations.

    The other Alex is right to warn about the dangers of having difficult conversations online: when you have tough news to deliver to a friend or colleague, face-to-face is the way to go, or if that’s not possible, a phone call. But there are plenty of pitfalls in live communication, too. One of the most common is the tendency to say yes to people — how can you
    resist those puppy dog eyes?? — when we want to say no.

    Online communication can help us build our muscles for saying no. I wrote a blog post earlier this year about 5 ways the social web can help you learn to say no, like helping you set your intentions and prioritize your commitments. Practices like maintaining a handful of pre-drafted “no” e-mails for typical inquiries that I can rarely take on, but find awkward to refuse — like cold-call requests to “pick my brain” on social media — have helped me get in the habit of saying no promptly instead of saying “later”, “maybe” or worse yet, “yes”. That online practice has spilled over into offline life, and helped me be more intentional in what I refuse and what I take on. And nothing is better for relationships than ensuring you only say yes when you really mean it.

  3. Alex L. says: Relationships are effected by online communication. My advice:
    Relations are effected by online communication.

    I’m going to indulge in a little syntax obsessiveness here, on the subject of “effect” vs. “affect”. Alex meant to say that relationships are affected by online communication — in other words, online communication influences (“affects”) our relationships. True enough! But relationships can also be effected — brought about by — online communication.

    Social networks do a terrific job of solving one of the toughest problems around developing relationships: how to find people who are a match for your interests, personality and needs. And it’s not all about Internet dating, either. I’ve made friends with people I’ve met via e-mail or Craigslist; developed close, long-term collaborations with colleagues I met through my blog; and expanded my circle of casual friends through Twitter.

    But social media can only effect relationships (as in, bring them about) if you see the positive side in how online communications affect relationships. Recognize that affections and affinities can be kindled online, and you’ll be open to the very real possibility of finding new friendships there.

  4. Alex L. says: Balance time on the Internet with time spent with friends and family. My advice: Balance the time you spend face-to-face with your local social circle with time you spend online with old friends.

    We live in a disposable, convenience-driven culture. It’s more convenient to get your coffee in a cardboard cup than to carry your own thermal mug; it’s easier to pack your kid’s lunch in a series of ziploc bags than in reusable containers; it’s cheaper and easier to throw out your broken DVD player than to have it repaired. We’re increasingly conscious of how this way of life is affecting our planet, but it’s also affecting our relationships.

    In a world of job changes and social mobility, it’s easier to socialize with the friends in town than the pal who has known you since college. But nothing substitutes for old friends — and if there’s one thing that Facebook has done brilliantly, it’s the way so many of us are now back in frequent contact with the friends we knew in previous lives. Invest in regular check-ins with your old and dear friends, even if those friendships have lapsed; after a few months of loose contact by Facebook and Twitter, looking at each other’s news and family photos, you’ll be ready to pick up the phone or plan a visit.

Engaging with the social web’s potential for relationship-building doesn’t mean being blind to its dangers. Alex Lickerman’s comments on the hazards of online communications is an excellent and thoughtful treatment of the challenges we face when we take our personal relationships online. Now we need to cultivate the ability to recognize and reconcile both hazards and opportunities, dangers and delights.

A practice to make your online friendships more meaningful

I wonder if technology and social media has compressed our relationships into a process that we can barely recognize?

That question is at the heart of Rhett Smith’s thoughtful blog post, Technology: Connected, Yet Lonelier Than Ever. He argues that by making it so easy to create nominal connections, technology can actually make it harder to create meaningful connections, because the process of developing relationship is in large part what creates relationship. (In this respect his post reminds me of Todd Essig on the value of saying good-bye).

Much to his credit, Smith’s post includes a recommended practice for how to avoid this thinning of relationship:

One of the ways that I have tried to work against this paradox is to try and make in person contact with the people that I communicate with online. Connecting in person with those I communicate with online helps me value the relational process and the friendship itself, and can help prevent me from compressing it into an “easy” or “like” button. It keeps me grounded.

I’d love to see Rhett Smith sit down with Diana Adams to talk about the relative merits of on- and offline relationship. Smith’s post makes me uneasy with its implicit deprecation of online connection relative to face-to-face interaction…which is why I’d like to see him take on Adams’ argument about recognizing online friendships as “real”.

But my own experience is that face-to-face time can make online friendships richer, even if 95% of your interactions are online. Smith’s practice is a great way to have the best of both worlds.

Can a mobile phone make you sane instead of crazy?

Aaron Bellve of Spit, Bristle and Fury (killer blog title, BTW!) has a thoughtful post about an NPR story on the dawn of therapy by mobile phone.

Cell phones, rather than augmenting our human encounters, are replacing them and in something as complex, sensitive and human based as the care of our mental health, I don’t think we can afford the distance.

Aaron comes to this story with a pre-existing condition: skepticism about the impact of technology on human relationships.

Our relationship with technology never ceases to amaze me — mostly in its ability become a substitute for actual relationships…We think we’ve had a nice chat with a friend when we’ve sent them text messages from the back of a cab or a line for the bathroom….We can now interact with people without having to make any time and without getting to make any memories. It’s all very distant.

I won’t argue that a mental health app is a substitute for one-on-one talk therapy. But Aaron’s blog post is an example of where tech therapy can be useful: in prompting us to think more carefully about the intersection between technology and mental health.

Now, I don’t agree with Aaron’s gloomy verdict about the impact of cell phones on personal relationships. If there’s one thing we’ve seen through the dawn of mobile social apps like Gowalla and FourSquare, it’s that mobile can actually increase face-to-face contact and the density of personal relationships, by making it easier for friends to find each other and hang out. At a much simpler level, how many of us now reach for the cell phone when we find ourselves near a friend’s home or office, calling to see if they are up for a quick cup of coffee?

And I’d even argue that purely virtual interactions can enrich our friendships, too. You see a dog in a stroller, shoot a picture with your cell phone, and send it to a friend; you’re showing them that they are in your mind and that you get their sense of humor. You are in a meeting at the time of your best friend’s big audition, so you can’t call to wish him luck — but you can send a surreptitious text. You use your phone to exchange a round of tweets with a friend in another city and timezone, who you’d otherwise talk with only once or twice a month. All of these interactions serve to enrich your friendships; to get away from once-in-a-while “quality time” and back to day-to-day intimacy.

Of course, it’s a big jump from appreciating the ambient sociability of text messaging to advocating for mental health dispensed by the App Store. But here’s where the App Store plays its part: simply  setting the intention to integrate your cell phone into your mental health regime can help you harness its power for your personal relationships and personal growth. A smartphone full of games does nothing to remind you of your larger goals or inner needs.

But a smartphone with a few apps that prompt you to inner reflection could act as a powerful reminder of how technology can help your mental health: by connecting you to the people you love, and the activities that inspire you.

6 ways to prioritize your friends online (for Oprah.com)

This post was originally written for Oprah.com.

“But I don’t want to join Twitter,” my friend Leda says, fighting off my entreaties to start tweeting so we can stay in touch throughout the day. “I already feel like I spend too much time online. Don’t you feel like it just distracts you from actually connecting with people?”

Leda had a point. I’d been on Twitter for over a year, but it was only in the past few months that I’d gotten into it as a daily part of my routine. And while I loved its chattiness, I was mostly chatting with people I barely knew.

A normal human being might have solved the problem by spending less time on Twitter and more time on the phone. But many of my closest friends are on the East Coast or in Europe, so by the time I get my kids in bed, it’s too late to call. That’s how I fell into tweeting: it lets me have a (pseudo) social life during the hours of the day when I’m actually available to chat.

But that was no reason to connect with casual acquaintances more than dear friends. Inspired by my conversation with Leda, I sorted my Twitter buddies so that the people I loved most were in a special group. Then I set up my Twitter client to give special prominence to the updates from people I love—or people I could love if we had more contact. Overnight, Twitter stopped being a way to keep up with colleagues and became a way of keeping in touch with friends.

Whether your online interactions happen on Facebook, Twitter or some other platform, you can bring the same quality of intention to your online relationships. Online conversation can be a great boon to your friendships, but only if you organize your online socializing around the kinds of relationships—and that specific people—that matter to you.

Go Where Your Friends Are
As soon as I reorganized Twitter to focus my attention on my most valued relationships, I noticed how many of my dearest pals weren’t on Twitter at all: They were on Facebook. In my enthusiasm for the shiny novelty of Twitter, I’d forgotten all about Facebook—but went back to checking Facebook regularly when I realized that’s where my closest pals hung out. You wouldn’t hang out at the latest trendy bar if your friends were still gathering at the neighborhood pub; don’t get caught up in the race to join the latest hip network if it takes you away from the online communities that engage your dearest friends.

Prioritize Your BFF
Before I had kids, I spent hours on the phone every week and stayed in regular contact with half a dozen good friends. But the after-work hours that I used to spend yakking with my girlfriends are now filled with feeding, bathing and reading to my kids; I’m lucky if I can find an hour a week to talk with a friend. That’s enough time to talk with each of my close friends once every three months—or to talk with one good friend every 10 days. Focusing my phone time on my oldest and dearest friend means that when we talk, we can actually have a meaningful conversation about the latest chapter in our lives, rather than using an hour to catch up on news highlights. Social networks can make staying in touch a lot easier, but they can’t actually cram more hours into the day. If you focus your online and phone time on a couple of close friendships, you’ll have more meaningful conversations than you can sustain with a large circle.

Don’t Confuse “Friends” with Friends
“You know S., don’t you?” a colleague asked. The name was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “You’re friends on Facebook,” my husband reminded me. Make that “friends,” not friends. The fastest way to erode your commitment to the relationships that matter to you is to confuse that long list of buddies you have on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn with actual people you know and love.

Take the Move Test
A year after our daughter was born, my husband and I interviewed for a number of jobs in another city. As we contemplated moving towns, we found ourselves pulling back from our extended circle of friends. We decided to turn this instinctive withdrawal into a conscious choice and stopped making plans with anyone we didn’t expect to stay in touch with after moving. Ironically, this contributed to our decision to stay put: Once we focused our time and attention on the people we saw as lifelong friends, our social life became much more meaningful and satisfying. Whether you move every year or plan on living in one place your whole life, an imaginary move is a great way of focusing your email, chat and Facebook time on the people who you love most.

Balance Your Social Life
We were at a local restaurant for dinner with our closest couple friends, enjoying a rare evening of adult conversation while the kids stayed home. As we compared notes on our jobs, kids and sex lives (like I said, close friends), I found myself looking wistfully at the table next to hours, where four women made up a Sex and the City quartet huddled in an intimate conversation. How long had it been since I went out with a gang of women myself?

Friendship isn’t one thing. Even if you have satisfying one-on-one visits with your BFF, or a few great couples with whom you and your sweetie socialize, you may be missing group friendships. Or you may have friends who are great for a wild night out but miss that trusted confidante. Know the balance of friendship types and friendship time that makes you happy, and you’ll be better able to create that social life by cultivating current or new relationships online.

Accept Compromise
It’s Saturday night, and as my husband and I banter across Twitter, we’re joined online by friends who weigh in on our latest debate and tease us for our geekiness. If we had found a sitter, we’d be at a party across town, but once again we’re confined to quarters, where socializing via Twitter serves as the next best thing. For those times when you know what kind of social life you want, but budget, time or logistics make it impossible, the Web can be a great pinch hitter. Maybe your ideal night out is a hockey game and a trip to a bar—but you know you’ll still have to wake up at 6 with your toddler. Watch the game at home on HD while you commiserate over that rotten play via chat or Skype™. Maybe you’d like to spend more time with your BFF, but your husband finds her husband dead boring. Invite them over for a night of Wii gaming, and let the guys play Guitar Hero while you and your pal catch up.

If these tips sound like they’re more about emotional intelligence than tech know-how, you’re catching on. The secret to a satisfying social life online doesn’t lie in which network you join or how cool your profile page looks—it’s about using social networks to reflect and amplify the way you connect with your friends.

And as your BFF can already tell you, you’ve got that down cold.

The meaning of friendship, on- and offline

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This weekend was the first time I found myself on the receiving end of Facebook’s new and  more nuanced privacy settings. An old friend popped up in the Facebook sidebar, which rotates an assortment of different people in your friend list. On a whim, I clicked her picture, so I could catch up on her latest news.

Instead I found myself staring at a virtually blank screen showing only her minimal info: clearly, she’d put me on a list of friends who would only have access to her limited profile. I’d been demoted from friend to “friend”™.

This reminded me of an assignment I’d received in my ninth-grade Latin class, when I had to translate the following story:

A son brags to his father about all the friends he has, only to meet with skepticism. “You call these people are your friends,” the father says. “Let’s see if you’re right. Slaughter a goat, and put it in a sack. Then go to the house of one of your friends. Tell him you have killed a man, and you need his help disposing of the body.”

The son does as his father says, and arrives at the house of his first friend. He presents his bloody sack, and asks his friend to help him dispose of the (supposedly human) remains. The friend is horrified and sends him away.

The son repeats the scene at the home of his next friend, who also refuses to help. The son visits friend after friend, but none are willing to help him conceal his crime.

Finally he returns to his father, defeated, and explains that all of his friends have turned him away.

“I have only one friend,” the father says. “Go to his house, and explain that you are my son. Show him the sack, and ask if he will help you.”

Once again, the son does as his father says. This time, the father’s friend – a true friend – immediately offers his assistance in burying the evidence of the son’s supposed crime.

I can’t remember the Latin translation, but the lesson stuck with me: there’s a big difference between “friends” and friends.

You can take a few lessons from this story yourself: the futility of making your kids take Latin. The importance of actually looking inside any blood-covered sack before disposing of it.  The opportunity for a hit Facebook application called “Goat Bag”.

I won’t define friendship as the willingness to conspire in covering up a homicide, but there is undoubtedly a difference between friendship as it was classically understood and the click-here-to-accept notion of friendship that has become commonplace online.

Simply using the word “friend” to describe a network-to-network connection effectively cheapens the notion of friendship. And if you’ve heard those implicit air quotes in the way people sometimes use the word friend to describe a social network connection, you know how quickly the currency of friendship is getting devalued.

There’s a simple solution — one you see on a variety of networks. Instead of using the term friend — a term that should have real meaning and value — networks can use words like buddy, connection, or contact.

Meanwhile, it’s up to us users to remember what real friendship involves: Genuine conversation (not mutual monitoring of status updates). Trust (not just putting someone on a “trusted contacts” list). Providing support (and not just of the tech variety).

We all know what the word friend can mean — and what it means to have real friends in our lives. Let’s not get confused by the online appropriation of the word “friend” to describe whoever happens to be at the other end of a T1 line.