Social networking gains in popularity in region

TUPELO – Wireless Internet connections, cell phones and Web sites: those are the things friendships are made of.

Friendships in the new millennium, that is. Users from all over the world – and Northeast Mississippi – are using social networking Web sites like Twitter and Facebook to find old friends, meet new ones and even connect with their favorite celebrities.

For four North Mississippi residents, they can’t imagine life – and their relationships – without these Web sites.

Raphael’s story
Facebook has been a link to the past for Raphael Henry.

Henry, 33, has used sites like Classmates.com to connect with friends from high school, until he discovered the usefulness of Facebook.

He was introduced to the site through students he works with at his job at Ole Miss. He saw the potential the site had to connect him to his past pals, as well as to the students he works with every day and the youth he works with at church. Now, he can’t imagine not using the site.

“I like the fact that when I first joined (Facebook), none of my classmates were on there,” he said. “Now, everybody I went to school with, I’ve been able to reconnect with them, find out what they’re doing. I realize I’ve got a couple of classmates that live in Tupelo, some live in Pontotoc. It’s like, whoa, I thought I was the only one here.”

He’s used to hearing someone say, “Facebook me.”

“It’s the same as, ‘Call me on my cell phone.’ I hear that a lot,” he said.

He has his own phone hooked to the site and he says he updates his status “all the time.”

On a local level, Henry has taken advantage of NEMS360.com’s events pages to get the word out about area goings on.

“I’ve put a lot of community reminders up,” he said. “I always go back every night and see how many people’s viewed it.”

Besides Facebook, Henry has used Ning.com, a site that allows users to create their own social networks.

Henry, who lives in Tupelo, said he hasn’t joined in on the Twitter craze.

“I’ve been trying to figure out why a bunch of people would want to ‘follow’ me,” he said, laughing.

Still, he realizes how useful and necessary social networking is becoming.

“I think it’s like HDTV – you’re gonna have to get aboard eventually,” he said.

Amanda’s story
Amanda Morris uses Twitter to connect with her friends, but she also uses it to chat up Blake Shelton, Larry the Cable Guy and Lee Ann Womack.

The 22-year-old student from Fulton is on both Twitter and Facebook, but admits she has a soft spot for the way Twitter allows celebrities to converse directly with their fans.

“They’ll reply back,” she said. “Larry the Cable Guy has replied to me a couple of times. Lee Ann Womack sent me a direct message.”

Morris loves live music, and she finds, friends and follows fellow concert-goers online. She updates her profiles about what shows she’s going to and posts pictures from the shows, so those who can’t go to the shows can see her experiences online. Like Henry, Morris has Facebook and other sites connected to her phone, so she can send and receive info no matter where she is, so long as she has service.

“I hate it if I don’t have any service where I am. I’m just so bummed if I can’t put them up right then,” she said.

Through music, Morris has made online friends from all over the world.

“I think very few of my (friends) are from around the area. Most of mine are from different states and a couple are from different countries but I’ve had them added two or three years so I feel like I know them even if I haven’t met them,” she said. She’s still careful about who can see her profile, however.

“If I get a friend request and we don’t have any mutual friends, I won’t friend them,” she said.

Morris puts out plenty of information online, but she uses caution.

“I think I’ve put up over 2,000 tweets, but I don’t say anything that I don’t want anybody to know,” Morris said. “You just have to kinda watch what you say, you know, if you have certain people added, just like if it’s real life.”

Greg’s story
Greg Ray is the first to admit he’s an information junkie.

That’s why he’s hooked to Twitter.

“One thing I’ve discovered is the immediacy of Twitter,” he said. “You can get news 15 minutes faster than you will from a breaking e-mail service. Most of the celebrity deaths I heard about over the summer were over Twitter. It wasn’t via e-mail or television.”

Ray, 44, of Belden, follows reporters from a host of news agencies on Twitter.

“If it wasn’t for the Internet, I would subscribe to eight newspapers,” he said. “I used to subscribe to USA Today and the local paper, and I was well-informed, or so I thought.”

Facebook, he said, is reserved for friends.

“I have friends from high school, college, friends I palled around with in Huntsville, Ala., to friends here in Tupelo,” he said. “I’ve reconnected with some old college friends from the mid-80s that I hadn’t talked to since way back when.”

Facebook makes friendships more convenient, he said.

“You used to have to go to a friend’s house to see their vacation photos. Now, you can look at them at your leisure, or you don’t have to look at them at all,” he said.

Like Morris, he’s connected to folks from around the world through TV and music. He debates the news with other fans of FOX News’s “Red Eye,” and talks music with fellow fans of the band Perpetual Groove.

He also has chatted up a few stars.

“Marlee Matlin … she replied to me or retweeted me or something like that. Man, that made my day,” Ray said. “When’s the last time an Oscar-winning actor has interacted with anybody I know?”

Heather’s story
Heather Truett’s life revolves heavily around writing.

As a teenager, she flocked to Web sites like Xanga and DiaryLand to start her own online diaries – those were the days before they were called blogs.

Truett eventually started her own blog site, which she still has, where she writes about her life as a mom, youth minister’s wife and creative writing teacher (a job she got, incidentally, through Facebook).

Truett, 27, was drawn to Twitter because she was told it was “micro-blogging.”

“It’s not,” she said, and she likened it to an “always-open chat room.” “No one really just reads Twitter just to read it.”

When Truett blogs, she promotes it on both Twitter and Facebook, where she connects with friends, family and fellow church members.

“It gives you an audience and feedback, and you can see what gets attention and what doesn’t,” she said.

The Tupelo resident said her friends on Facebook vary. Her friends’ kids, some as young as 8, are her friends on there, while some of her friends have grandkids that age.

“My high school reunion is being almost totally planned via Facebook right now,” Truett said.

Her key to talking with folks on the Web is the same as it is when connecting face-to-face.

“I’m careful (on the Internet) the way I’m careful in conversations,” she said. “I’ve learned never to put anything on the Internet I don’t want our church members to know.”

But Truett sees a spiritual side to the social networking craze. Since marrying a minister, friends have contacted her via Facebook to talk religion.

“I can no longer (delete) people off, because then I think, ‘What if God wants to use Facebook in this way?’ You never know,” she said. “I just find that you can’t have too many friends, and you never know when an acquaintance, I don’t want to say, will come in handy, but will be exactly what you need in that moment. Networking – that’s what it’s supposed to be, right?”

Safety a must on social networking sites, sheriff says

BY SHEENA BARNETT
Daily Journal

TUPELO – Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson has a way of talking about the dangers of social networking that can make even the most savvy user pause.

“Take a Facebook profile – would you put all of that information on a poster board and put it at the mall and let people read it? That’s what you’re doing. Maybe 10 people would read it (there), but on the Internet you’re giving it to millions,” he said.

Johnson has been adamant about catching Internet predators and often speaks to schools, churches and other organizations about the potential dangers that lie in social networking sites and chat rooms.

It all boils down to giving away too much personal information on the Web, he said.

“I think you get into a situation to where, for whatever reason, you’re venting, or you’re saying something you wouldn’t say physically to someone face to face, and the computer’s not going to give you an opinion back,” he said. “If you put on there that you’re going on vacation, you’ve let every burglar know your house won’t be occupied.”

Common sense dictates what should and shouldn’t go online, he said. Users shouldn’t give out personal details such as their current location, schedule, birthday, address, phone number, employer or school.

Privacy
Most sites like Twitter and Facebook have privacy settings and resources to help someone who is being harassed online. If the situation escalates to cyberbullying, that’s a crime, and the local police can get involved.

“It’s going to become a crime when it’s unwanted solicitation,” he said. If a user makes it known that he or she does not want to be contacted by another person, and that person continues, it can be reported as a crime.

Johnson said Facebook and similar sites are as helpful as they can be dangerous.

Johnson says he has a Facebook profile because his daughter wanted to join the site.

“If your child is on a social networking site and you’re not their friend (on it), you’ve got problems,” he warned.

Now, most of the people at the sheriff’s department use Facebook, and they’ve used the site to catch criminals. If police suspect a crime was done by a few people, for example, all an investigator needs to do is check a suspect’s Facebook friend list to see if they know the other suspects.

Johnson likened social networking to driving.

“You may be as safe as you can be, but you’ve got to look out for everybody else,” he said.

FACEBOOK
What is it? Facebook is a social networking site that allows people to have “friends,” post pictures, update their status, create events, join groups, play games, and be a fan of their favorite products and celebrities.

Did you know? There are currently more than 300 million active users worldwide. The fastest-growing demographic is 35 and older.

Privacy features Facebook’s privacy settings are specific – your entire profile can be set to private, so non-friends can’t see it, and you can customize what certain friends can and can’t see.
Source: Facebook.com

TWITTER
What is it? The site asks, “What are you doing?” Users answer that question in short (140-characters or less) messages called tweets. Rather than friends, users have “followers” – as in, folks who “follow” a user’s updates. Updates can be made from the Web or via applications like TweetDeck and Echofon.

How many people use it? Twitter has not released any official count on active accounts, but it’s estimated that Twitter has millions of users worldwide.

Privacy features Your Twitter account can be made private, and you can choose who can and cannot see your updates. You can block users and report spam.

Continue the conversation
Reporter Sheena Barnett interviewed Amanda Morris, Raphael Henry, Greg Ray and Amanda Truett in a roundtable interview. You can listen to the interview in its entirety at Barnett’s Scene Now blog at NEMS360.com/pages/scene_now. Click here to visit the Scene Now blog.

Also, keep an eye on that page to get updates on a social networking club Barnett is starting with fellow Journal employees.

Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal