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Social Networkers who go "off the grid"

Bridget and I wrote this column for today's paper:

We've noticed a phenomenon lately with folks and social networking: people who go ''off the grid.'' That's what we call people who are on networks but are skittish about being in contact with people . . . which seems to go against the point of joining a social network, right?

Not always.

We talked to quite a few people who are off the grid (and not surprisingly, wanted to remain anonymous). These are people who have suddenly become extremely private.

One female Poked reader joined Facebook because her co-workers were talking it up as a good communication tool that could also help in her work. But once she got there, she was uncomfortable:

``I felt like a lot of people that I didn't care about or who I didn't want to talk to suddenly wanted to connect with me, and it creeped me out.''

Another reader joined Facebook as a marketing tool to connect with strangers. He said he found he couldn't stand the ''virtual smalltalk'' and felt like he had been catapulted back into high school.

''Is there an age that's too old for Facebook? Yes!'' he said.

The 30-something reader thinks he's too old and headed toward LinkedIn, which he sees as ageless.

Both of their immediate ways to resolve the problem was to go off the grid, albeit in different ways. Our female reader limited her profile so it wasn't searchable -- and if you found her, you couldn't send a friend request -- or any message, for that matter. Our male reader simply stopped logging on.

We struggle with this, too. Bridget joined Facebook four years ago during college, when it was more about keeping track and maintaining only a social life -- not for professional reasons

I usually let friend requests pile up, because I just don't want to deal. Initially I wanted them to connect with me on LinkedIn, but that's problematic if they're not on that network.

This is how we've dealt with it. We respect that some people use Facebook as a contact for acquaintances, so Facebook becomes the I-met-you-at-that- chamber-event-last-week, I-haven't-seen-you-in-20-years, or we-were-in-kindergarten-together kind of social network. That's not us. But we want those people to be able to contact us, too. So we've über-limited their access. They only see the bare bones of our Facebook pages. (Helpful hint: Go to your friends page on Facebook to create a label for a group of friends, and set up what that group can see in your privacy settings.)

And our first reader who went off the grid? She went back on Facebook on Inauguration Day, inspired by all the status updates, notes and photos of friends -- and acquaintances -- who were not just in Washington, but all over the world sharing their experiences. ''I kind of got to live that with them,'' she said And isn't that the beauty of a social network: Learning or experiencing things outside of your circle?

Have you gone off the grid for different reasons?

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I have "gone off the grid", but only superficially and only for a few days or weeks at the most. When you work in the web world, it becomes very important that you "walk the talk" and be uber-connected.

However, for people whose lives do not depend upon their web presence, I can fully see how many social networking tools would be overwhelming and inconveniencing. Everyone has to find their own comfort zone.

Personally, I use each site differently and for different purposes. For example, Facebook has been a terrific way to reconnect with people that I grew up with my small hometown in Ohio.

I deal with this by having different policies for different sites. I'm much more strict about connecting with people on LinkedIn than I am about Plaxo. And Twitter is more about people I *want* to get to know. I'll actually explain this to people who want to connect with me on LI, but who are strangers. And if I find my friends on Plaxo, I migrate them to FB right away.

That seems to work well for me.

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