Does it seem like everyone in the world has suddenly created a profile on Facebook and wants to become your “friend?” If you already use social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, and Twitter, then read no further. But if you think a Twitter produces the high notes in your stereo speakers and a Facebook is your old high school yearbook, this column is for you.
For most of our lives, “socializing” meant attending a function or event in person, meeting people, and making small talk. “Networking” meant meeting someone through a common bond with a third person. Today, thanks to the Internet, social networking has an entirely different meaning. In place of face-to-face meetings, social networking now occurs online, mediated through a “profile” or some other form of Web page that represents you to the rest of the world. People frequently use these pages to express themselves, share their interests, and post updates about their personal and professional lives. People become “friends” or “colleagues” by linking their pages together.
The 800-pound gorilla of the social networking space right now is Facebook
. Started by a college student who wanted to create the online equivalent of the “facebook” typically given to freshman at college orientation, Facebook today has tens of millions of members. When you join Facebook, you select a user name and password and then create a profile page. You can add pictures, videos, and as much information about yourself as you want. If you enter your school and work affiliations, Facebook will automatically seek out and find people you may know based on those associations.
Something strange will happen not long after you set up a Facebook page: old friends and colleagues you haven’t heard from or thought about in years will invite you to become their “friends.” Unless you accept their invitations, these people cannot see your page or any of your personal information. Once you do accept, you can view the other person’s page and be added to their network and vice-versa. Facebook pages can also be created for companies, organizations, and groups. So, your Facebook page might have connections with your college alumni page, medical school alumni page, and a Grateful Dead fan page.
If you’re part of the Gen-X or baby boomer generations, this decade’s earlier social networking phenomenon, MySpace, almost certainly passed by you unnoticed. MySpace seemed to be tailor-made for hormone-crazed pre-teens, teenagers, and adults obsessed with acting youthful. MySpace offers much less privacy than Facebook; anyone can see your MySpace page (Check out my attempt at http://myspace.com/infomed
Twitter deserves special mention, not only because it is currently all the rage, but also because I believe it represents one of the worst aspects of social networking—the narcissistic need some people have to update everyone in their network on exactly what they are doing at that very moment. In all seriousness, people use Twitter to broadcast things like: “I just ate an apple” or “I’m stuck in traffic.” To be fair, I have seen it used for slightly more productive purposes, including providing live, near-instant updates from meetings and conferences.
There are also several professional social networking sites for physicians and other healthcare providers. Probably the most popular of these is Sermo.com, but others include DoctorsHangout.com, DoctorNetworking.com, and PhysicianOnline.com. I don’t use these sites, but they offer a highly focused forum for professional and social exchange between medical practitioners.
Whether you want to locate an old boyfriend or girlfriend from college, or just network with other pediatricians practicing in Chicago, there is probably a social networking site for you. Don’t be afraid to try social networking, but don’t be foolhardy in how you approach it. Try to minimize the amount of financial or personal identity information you give out online, and don’t download software or files from anyone you don’t trust. And remember: the information you post is now public information that will be online forever, so don’t brag about anything that could derail your chances to become the next Surgeon General.
Dr. Bertman is Physician Editor-in-Chief of
MDNG: Primary Care/ Cardiology Edition. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Brown University and president of AmazingCharts.com, a leading developer of EHR software. He is also the founder and president of AfraidToAsk.com, a consumer website focusing on personal medical topics. He is in private practice in Hope Valley, RI.