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A look at some of the ways (good and not so good) that sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are reshaping communications.
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week on our program: the world of social media.
People use social networking sites to share ideas, opinions and interests. Millions post comments, videos, pictures, links and other content, or just follow what other users post.
People reconnect with old friends and classmates, and make new connections. Social networks are all about connecting friends and friends of friends, just like in the physical world.
Social media is a way to communicate one to many. But sites generally have a way for users to also send private messages and to control access to their pages.
Social media is still young and evolving. Take the example of Facebook. It was launched in two thousand four as a social network just for Harvard students. Then it opened up to all colleges. Then high schools got their own private pages.
Now anyone can join. Facebook said it had over two hundred fifty million active users as of July. And not everyone is happy about that. Karey is a student at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
KAREY: "I have kept my mom off of Facebook. She wants one, I said 'No, you can't have one.' It started out as a college thing and then high school students got it. The value of it decreases to me with like the wider amount of people. Like the older population that gets it, I'm not OK with that."
Ekin Oz is a seventeen-year-old exchange student from Turkey. She does not think older people should be on Facebook.
EKIN OZ: "I think it's so silly because like it's something for teenagers."
But a lot of older people would disagree that social networks are just for teenagers. About eighty percent of American adults use the Internet. A recent online survey found that half of them now belong to social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn.
Forrester Research says four out of five online adults use social media at least once a month. That includes almost everyone age eighteen to thirty-four. Now, the fastest growing group of users are people thirty-five and older.
That would include thirty-nine-year-old Evan Falchuk. He says he first heard about social media two or three years ago at a business meeting.
EVAN FALCHUK: "What I was really surprised by when I first joined was how many people were there who I knew.'"
Evan Falchuk is a lawyer. But he is president and chief operating officer of Best Doctors, a medical company in Boston, Massachusetts. He likes to use LinkedIn, a social networking site for professionals.
EVAN FALCHUK: "I mean, I travel all over the world and have dozens of people that I meet every month and I get business cards from them. And you get back to your office and look at the business card and you say 'Who was that again? And what did we talk about?' I try to write notes, but it's very hard.
"Whereas if you connect with them on LinkedIn, now I've got not only the person's name and contact information, but I know what their prior jobs were. I know who they are connected to who I might know. You have a much richer way of connecting with this person than you otherwise would."
Evan Falchuk uses Facebook to connect with friends and family members. But not all share his enthusiasm for social media.
EVAN FALCHUK: "My wife is a little bit less of a social media user than I am. So I like to share things about what's going on. And we like to go out to dinner to different places, for example, and I like to share 'Hey we're at this place and this is what we had and it was good.' And then she is more private and says 'Well, I don't really want everybody to know where we are and what we're doing.'"
For couples in long-distance relationships, the main ways to communicate used to be phone calls, letters and visits. Now, they have texting, e-mail, instant messaging and video chat. Patricia is a student at Radford University in Virginia.
PATRICIA: "I was in a long distance relationship for about a year, and Skype really helped because you could actually see the other person when you are talking."
Skype is an Internet video and phone service that was just in the news. Its current owner eBay agreed to sell a sixty-five percent share to a group of investors for two billion dollars.
Ekin Oz uses Facebook and Skype to stay in touch with family and friends back in Turkey.
EKIN OZ: "I'm using Facebook to contact with my friends, I'm using Skype to contact with my family. Because I miss my family so much, I want to see them, their faces. It's much more important than friends."
But even a simple text message can mean a lot. Dan in Virginia is twenty years old. He will be in a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend after joining the Marines. He says texting is good because it lets you communicate whenever you have time.
Not everyone in the military, however, is at ease with social media. The Marine Corps has banned the use of sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter on its computers. But the ban does not limit access on other computers.
Many service members use social networks to communicate with their families or with the public. The Defense Department has been writing a policy for all of the military on the use of social networking sites. Defense officials say they are aiming for a balance that will not compromise the security of operations or military networks.
Public officials recognize that social media has changed the way people communicate. The White House, for example, held a live discussion last Tuesday on its Facebook page. People watched and commented on a speech by President Obama that was broadcast to students nationwide from a Virginia high school.
Before the speech, a student at the school asked for advice about how to get the president's job.
BARACK OBAMA: "First of all, I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life. And when you're young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff. And I've been hearing a lot about young people who -- you know, they're posting stuff on Facebook, and then suddenly they go apply for a job and somebody has done a search and, so, that's some practical political advice for you right there."
Experts say a good rule to remember is not to post anything you would not want your mother to see. But what if your mother -- or father -- is one of your "friends," as in a friend you accepted on Facebook?
Some parents use social media to communicate with their kids and to monitor their activities. This, in turn, has led to myparentsjoinedfacebook.com. This is a site for sharing and laughing at things that parents have posted.
Ekin Oz, the exchange student from Turkey, has a different concern about privacy. She worries about cybercrime and the information that could be gathered about a person from different Web sites.
EKIN OZ: "I'm scared of copying my personal information to use, like my photos they can use for things which is not good for me, and I'm concerned about that. If someone write my name on Google they can find one picture from Facebook or something, but is it safe?"
By now most parents know about the dangers of sex offenders using social networks. But the computer security company F-Secure points out the risk even in posting information like vacation plans. Someone who wants to break into the house will then know when people are away.
And then there is the time issue. Jenn is a student at Appalachian State in North Carolina.
JENN: "I'm probably on Facebook a lot more that I should be. I'll go on sometimes to check it and then get right back off. And then maybe ten minutes later I'll be like 'Oh, well, I need to talk to so-and-so,' and so then I'll go back on it, every thirty minutes or something."
And how often does her classmate Karey check her page?
KAREY: "If it's like during school when things are busy, once maybe for like twenty minutes max. But then if it's like during the summer and I'm really bored, I don't have anything else to do, then it might be a little longer."
EKIN: "I check my account at least one time a day. If I talk with my family, it's like an hour. But if I don't talk to them, just ten or twelve minutes at most."
And what about Evan Falchuk -- a frequent commentator on social media. How often does he check for updates?
EVAN FALCHUK: "It kind of happens in the background, because I have an iPhone which I love. And the iPhone has applications on it for each of the social media that we've been talking. And so I'm frequently looking at it or typing stuff or posting something. It feels like it's something I do continuously."
Some people like to write long entries in their blogs. On Twitter, each message, or tweet, is limited to one hundred forty characters.
Market researchers at Pear Analytics say they are big fans of Twitter. But in a recent study they declared that forty percent of the tweets captured over a two-week period were "pointless babble."
Evan Falchuk would agree that some people write things like "I am now sitting in the doctor's waiting room."
EVAN FALCHUK: "But most of the people on Twitter that I see are actually trying to have a substantive discussion -- a real conversation about topics that are interesting to them. So for me personally, I'm in the health care business and in America we're having this very important debate about health care. And I'm connected with hundreds -- actually I think maybe thousands -- of health care professionals or people with an opinion on health care or doctors or others who are constantly posting things to do with what's going on in health care."
Some people find answers through social media. Others find love.
A woman named Georgina says she used a social dating site because she was looking "for a higher quality of a mate." She was still looking when we talked to her. But she thinks the new technologies are a great way to communicate -- as long as people still show traditional respect for each other.
GEORGINA: "Back in the nineteen eighties when I was dating without computers, cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging, people had to be more organized. They had to be home, and they had to stick to their plans, because you had no way of communicating with someone once you left for your destination.
"Nowadays, with the extremely fast mode of communication, people have the ability to be lazy and spontaneous and not organized, because they can text you at the last minute or call you wherever you are and say 'I'm not coming, change of plans.'"
Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and Marisel Salazar, and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus.
And I'm Steve Ember. You can share comments and find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also find Special English on Twitter and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA.
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