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“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.