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How many people are following you on Twitter? How many people do you follow? Do you know a wall post from a re-tweet? Should you?
Social networking is the latest "hot" trend on the internet. Services like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter give their users a suite of tools to connect with others and share photos, videos, links or just updates about what they are doing at a particular moment. Conventional wisdom suggests that younger folks would be more interested in this type of virtual exhibitionism, but recent research suggests that may not be the case.
Baby boomers make up more than one-third of all Americans online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. About half of all boomers belong to at least one social networking site, says a recent study by online advertising company, Burst Media, but the role they play there is more that of an observer or consumer than performer.
Most boomers feel that social network sites are focused on younger demographics, but newer services, particularly Twitter, are poised to give boomers new access to the very information they go online for: local or national news, shopping and health information. As a result, they are driving much of the 700 percent growth in Twitter use over the past year, according to ComScore.
Participating in social networks can benefit boomers and other older adults in three key ways. First, social networking allows individuals to connect or re-connect with distant relatives and long-lost friends. Search tools and sophisticated matching algorithms make it easy to find people you went to school with, folks from your home town or former colleagues, church mates, neighbors and more.
Second, a big boon for social networks is that more businesses are seeing the marketing potential in them - a potential that lies mainly with the older user. By opting to receive updates from your favorite store or restaurant, you can receive advance notice of sales, special offers, new products and even coupons.
The third benefit to social networks is that they make their users more visible to potential employers and volunteer opportunities. According to CareerBuilder.com, more than one in five employers use social networking sites to screen potential employees, and of those, 24 percent have chosen to hire someone due, in large part, to what they saw in the candidates' online profiles.
But, there also are some serious drawbacks to having your life out there for many to see that need to be weighed against the benefits. The first drawback is the same as the third benefit: employers are looking. Your online profile can alert your current and potential employers to problem areas, such as poor communication skills, risky or inappropriate behavior and critical comments about current or past employers. There have been recent news accounts of people who have missed out on job opportunities or, worse, lost their jobs over things they had posted online.
The second drawback to social networking is privacy and security. Some sites, like Facebook, allow you to limit who has access to the information you post, but it doesn't give you control over who sees things you post on other people's pages, or things of yours that your friends re-post. Details about your work schedule, planned vacations and other information could give the wrong person valuable information about where you are and where you aren't at any given moment.
As with any activity online, you should use caution and restraint when sharing personal information online. Before you post something, ask if you would want a total stranger to have access to that information. Also, ask yourself if the information you post casts you in a positive, responsible and professional light - it may be the only place where you have complete control over the first impression others have of you.