I started my first Facebook page back in June 2009. Then in September of 2010, I tentatively opened a Twitter account. At first I didn't get it-who were all these people talking about what they'd just had for lunch?
But then I started to find people I admire, like Paulo Coelho (Paulo Coelho tweeting!), and I felt like I was invited into a series of lively conversations-often quite thoughtful and funny-and I was hooked.
Lance may have a different memory of this, but I believe we met first on Twitter, and I'll be forever grateful for the medium that allowed us first to connect, and then develop a dear friendship.
Still, as I'm sure you all know, blogs, Facebook and Twitter can be a bit of a time suck and I'm sure you, like me, have also lamented the time spent there-time you could have spent doing something more useful, like the laundry.
So I was pleased when a friend (on Facebook, of course) directed me to a study that shows that engaging in social "media" confers some interesting benefits. Have you ever gotten a lead on a job or a tip on a great movie or a suggestion for a healthier breakfast from an acquaintance? Me too.
It turns out that's no coincidence. Back in 1973 a sociologist named Mark Granovetter found that information provided by acquaintances, or "weak ties" as he called them, was responsible for a significant number of people getting jobs.
Studies show these ties contribute to health and happiness in other ways, too. Now that 1 billion people worldwide are online, it seems the potential for getting a strong boost from weak ties is even greater.
Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist who wrote the book How Many Friends Does One Person Need? , argues that our primate brains can only maintain about 150 genuine social relationships. He says we simply don't have the cognitive capacity for any more.
But what if it's the time involved that limited the number of reliable and trustworthy ties one could form, and not some cap on the ability of the "primate" brain?
After all, online tools help us form large networks very quickly and easily, and have already changed the way we access and share information (my husband, for example, is more likely to read political blogs than the New York Times).
Studies show that an active social life may be as good for your long-term health as avoiding cigarettes. Support and affirmation are also readily available through social networking and are widely accepted as necessary for longevity and well-being.
Asking your friends for help or advice is nothing new, but people are clearly sharing personal feelings and experiences with a wider group of people than they once did.
Sandy Pentland at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who analyzes technology-based social interactions, says "The things that befall us are often due to a lack of social support. There's more of a safety net now."
Want to build an even stronger safety net? Here are 4 steps you can apply to your friendships online or "in real life."
1. Share what's important to you.
I've learned so much-art, business, writing, yoga come to mind at the moment-by reading from my friends' updates and links. I even like to hear what other people had for lunch! If it's important to you, I can promise you that someone else wants and even needs to hear it – so please share!
2. Ask for help.
Please remember this-people aren't mind readers. I once saw a Facebook update from an acquaintance who said that she was depressed. I asked what was up, and she said she had thrown out her back and was homebound and no one was offering to help. I asked if she had asked for help. She hadn't. As soon as she did her friends offered to buy her groceries, cook her meals, and walk her dog.
3. Offer help.
One of my favorite all-time lessons is from Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, "Whatever you think people are withholding from you-praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care, and so on-give it to them." When a member of your network shows a need, see if you can help them.
It doesn't have to be a big deal. You could just send them an online greeting card that says you're thinking of them. Not only will this improve your friend's life, helping someone makes you feel better-and a comment containing an offer of help may encourage others who have held back out of shyness or a desire not to interfere.
4. Extend yourself a little more.
My husband has a rule about Facebook (and I don't think you'll ever see him on Twitter): he only accepts or extends friendships if he has shared a meal with the person. That's my husband. For myself, I think it's important to engage with new people. What's the downside of being exposed to new networks and new ideas? I can't think of any. Heck, you might just find out about a great new job or movie!
So, I'd love to know: Have you found "virtual" friendships as vital as "in real life" variety? What's different? What's the same? Please tell me in the comments!