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Reporter's Notebook

Ellen Guettler spent time with teenagers to find out what goes into creating a personal brand online.
Photo by Katherine Lewis

I remember my first invitation to join Friendster. It was 2002. I was working in Washington DC, just a year out of college. As I read the invitation to meet friends through my friends online, I was confused. Why did I have to be with my friends online? And what sort of friends-of-friends wanted to know me after seeing just my photo, anyway? It feltů creepy.

I accepted my friend's request (she was, after all, my friend) and created a skeletal Friendster profile, which promptly stagnated due to my lack of interest. Friends trickled onto my page over the next few years. I'd "Friendster" people I met at parties. It was kind of nice not to struggle with names if we saw each other again at the grocery store. But my profile looked like a book jacket bio: This is what I look like. This is where I've worked. These are my favorite films - hardly a vibrant online version of myself. By 2006, I was ready to shut down my profile altogether. It just didn't seem like anything happened there.

It was the same year I pitched a story about online social networking. What fascinated me was the generational divide. My younger friends were used to posting a lot of personal information online. My older friends couldn't imagine making their lives so public. And I was somewhere in the middle. I rather enjoyed putting together my paltry Friendster profile; I just didn't know what to do with it once it was there.

When I began reporting this story, I made tidy, professional Facebook and MySpace pages so I could see the profiles of the young people I interviewed. Most of these teens use the privacy settings that prevent strangers from viewing their profiles, so after talking to sources for the first time, I'd "friend" them in order to get access.

I instantly realized why my Friendster life was so boring. My profile was inactive. I didn't post anything new. My friends didn't post anything new. But these kids posted every day, even several times a day. You could see when they met someone new, when they were busy with school, when they went out of town and when they came back home. They were living life online.

And it was a reporter's dream come true.

It wasn't that I was particularly interested in the daily goings-on of these people's lives. It's that in radio, you don't have a story unless you have it on tape. And to get it on tape you need to know when it's happening. You're constantly asking what people plan to do next and if you can come along. If you forget to ask or if you don't check back with your sources often enough, you miss things. And then you don't have a story.

But these young people were alerting me (and everyone else) to everything that was happening in their lives. Not only that, they were always available online. Where my emails and phone calls went unanswered for days, my Facebook messages were returned within minutes. These teens said only their parents and teachers send them emails anymore. When I was at work on a Saturday night, my fact-checking requests to Dan Rubenstein and Lily Salvio-Shaker were answered instantly on Facebook. It was 11 pm. It was a weekend.

My sources had an incentive to be active online. As researcher Danah Boyd points out, young people want to gather where their friends are. It can be social suicide to not exist online. I grew up with offline friends. For me, Friendster was an uncomfortable construct, an added burden.

That's why it was a complete surprise when, in the middle of my reporting, I started getting friend requests on Facebook from my own friends who had found my profile. They came slowly at first. I politely declined each one, explaining that my profile was reserved for a story I was working on. My friends are nice people, but I didn't care to mix them up with a bunch of unsuspecting teenagers.

Only one of my friends noticed the rather odd collection of youngsters attached to my profile.

"I sent you a Facebook friend request," my friend wrote. "Then I looked at your friends and was horrified to see '11 after their names. Then I realized you had that account for the kiddies and the work. So feel free to ignore the request."

My friend was referring to 2011, the year my Facebook "friends" would graduate from college. But the requests started to come more frequently. It was hard to say no to some of my closest friends. Then came the blasts from the past. A friend from my time in DC whom I hadn't spoken to since I moved away. An old boyfriend. People from college I hadn't seen in years. Even a guy I met on the bus.

These are individuals who might otherwise fade from memory, and some would say for the better. But I'm curious about the people I once knew. I want to know what they're doing, who their friends are, how they've fared. That they even remembered me, I'll admit, I'm flattered.

I thought I'd finish my story and shut down my online profiles. But as familiar faces accumulate in my friend requests, I find myself thinking about how I'd craft my personal profile. What's my public face? I may not remember to be as active online as my sources are, but Danah Boyd is right. If my friends are on Facebook, I want to be there too.

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