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

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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.

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