Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hooking up with old friends on the Net

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about the social effect the Internet is having on people wanting regain touch with old friends. The discussion covered Oldfriends, Facebook, and the dangers of looking up old lovers online. There’s a generation coming up now that knows it won’t lose touch with its friends – and there are plenty of older folk trying to find people they used to know.

As always, there are some links at the end.

Q: Is it a good idea to look up old friends on the Internet. Is this a good idea?

A: Sometimes. After all, most of us have people in our past who we wonder how they have turned out. I think a certain amount of nosiness is in all of us – after all, that’s what keeps journalists in business!

Q: And you can do this with Google, of course.

A: You can, and in a small country like New Zealand that’s often enough to find the person you are after. But there are specific websites out three to help. These are sites like – part of the TradeMe stable and so now owned by Fairfax. The original one was Friends Reunited, a UK site. Typically these sites ask you to load up the schools you attended, university, employers and so forth and try to match you with people you would have overlapped with. They rely on getting a reasonable number of people onto the site, so they generally don’t charge to register.

Q: How are they funded?

A: Some are wholly through advertising. That’s how Old Friends, the New Zealand one, works. Friends Reunited, the UK one, lets you join for nothing and identify people you used to know, but charges you for the contact information you would need to actually get in touch.

Q: Are there other sites like this?

A: Lots. Broadly, these are what are called “social networking” sites. There’s “Linked in”, a business networking site that is aimed at providing business people with a way of hooking up. It could be quite useful for consultants to recommend each other for work – you know, the life of a consultant, and I can attest to this myself, is generally either too much work or too little. Something like this could help people share around the too much to those with too little.

Another site that’s really popular at the moment is “Facebook”. It’s a bit like MySpace, but it’s a bit less of a free for all, in that its based around your school or university cohort. The name refers to a paper book produced by the authorities in some universities to help staff recognize a new cohort of students. It was started three years ago by a young man leaving a US university, and has had lots of venture capital funding since. It’s now a 50 million dollar company with 200 staff.

Q: US Dollars?

A: Is there a difference these days? Yes, US dollars, Facebook’s headquarters are in California. Interestingly, a couple of its users found a way to hack it recently so its users could put fancier things on their Facebook pages than Facebook itself intended. They both now work for the company!

Facebook is interested because most of its clientele are people leaving university around now and wanting to provide a way to keep in touch. In other words, its people who realize that they may lose touch rather than ones who already have. Other sites are more wide ranging, but they mostly cater to people who realize they have already lost touch and are seeking to reconnect with old acquaintances.

Q: So talk me through it – how does it work to sign up to something like Facebook?

A: You go to the website, create an account, and tell it where you went to school and when, and the same for university, and the same for all jobs you’ve had.

Q: What if you don’t want to share all that?

A: You don’t have to, but if you, say, miss out your university career you won’t be put in touch with anyone from it. Of course, you might think that’s a good thing, but presumably do are interested in contact with some people or you wouldn’t be joining Facebook in the first place.

Q: what happens next?

A: You can use it to find a list of people you have overlapped with at your school, university, etc. They have to be already registered with Facebook. Then you can use the site to send them a “hi – remember me?” email.

Q: So have tell these people your email address?

A: Not unless you want to. The website acts as an intermediary so you don’t have to give the person you are talking to any more information about yourself than you want to, and you can break off contact at any time. Until, that is, you become comfortable enough to give them a direct form of contact like an email address or phone number.

Q: So this is like an online dating website?

A: I’ve never tried that, but I’m told it can be very effective. I would guess it works in much the same way. You’d enter information about yourself and the kind of person you are looking for, and the website would match you with someone. For what its worth, Consumer magazine did a test of online and offline dating agencies six months or so back and the online ones showed to be far more effective. Anyway, dating isn’t the primary intention of Facebook or the similar sites.

Q: You mentioned MySpace – how is that different from Facebook?

A: Essentially MySpace is just a bunch of home pages for people – anyone – all in approximately the same format, with material about people’s likes and dislikes, views, gives them space for blog entries, photographs, embedded YouTube clips and so forth. Like all social networking sites, MySpace lets it’s users declare each other to be friends, so you get these big networks building up within in. It was founded in 2003 and bought two years later by Rupert Murdoch for an eye-watering $580 million US dollars.

Q: Why?

A: You’d have to ask him. I suppose he thinks owning the place where so many people exchange so much information is worth that much money.
Anyway, looking up old friends can be fun, but it’s not without pitfalls.

Q: Such as?

A: You might have thought these people were idiots the first time round! But the major problem has got to be people hooking up with old flames and breaking up their current relationship mainly. According to Nancy Kalish, who has studied this effect, people find contact with old lovers almost irresistible and a relationship which was intended to be a catch up over a coffee often rapidly progresses to something else. She says that catch up over a cup of coffee leads to emails which quickly lead to instant messaging, then the assignation hotel room is just round the corner. She believes that we are often imprinted on the first person we fall in love with and that getting together later in life can start things off again.

Q: Surely if that’s true, it’s always been true?

A: Yes, but the Internet makes it so much easier to actually find an old flame. Before everyone had the Internet, before Google, before social networking sites, it would have been quite difficult, especially in countries with a big population such as the US or the UK. Nancy Kalish says that between 1993 to 1997, 30% of the people contacting old flames were married, and that now 82% are. If what she says is true that’s a pretty risky situation for a lot of relationships.

Q: Any advice on that one?

A: I can only repeat what Nancy Kalish says: if you are thinking about looking up former lovers on the Internet, and you are married – don’t do it.


For getting back in touch with school mates: New Zealand’s Old Friends and the UK’s Friends Reunited.

The two biggest social networking sites – MySpace and Facebook, and a business-focussed one: LinkedIn.

A Christchurch Press article about Facebook.

An article about the risks of recontacting former girl- or boyfriends online, and a whole website devoted to research on the subject.

posted by colin at 7:52 pm  

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