To fill a table, they go online
Web connections, made with care, can add to holiday cheer and gatherings of new friends.
Call it Home for the Holidays 2.0. Whether it's the newly married couple transplanted across the country, or the emotionally troubled 50-something Boston-area businessman, or the San Diego bartender who has to work on Thanksgiving day, individuals displaced from their own families by geography, emotions, or work schedules are turning to the tools of today to find "family" for the big seasonal gatherings.Skip to next paragraph
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As more people grow comfortable using social-networking websites – from Facebook and MySpace to Craigslist and a wide range of smaller, niche social-network sites – more also appear inclined to turn their digital contacts, cautiously, into real-world social connections to ensure they are not by themselves on the holidays.
Just five years ago, people's options were much more limited, says John Boynton, founder and CEO of SchoolPulse, an online community for educational institutions. "Now they can post a single ad, and thousands, potentially millions, of people will see it." Because of the sheer scale – some 300 million users regularly engage with the various social-network sites – "they can find a wide variety of rich and very specific experiences," he adds.
Some experts see a nascent trend with growth potential, especially during tough economic times. "The more mobile we get, the more isolated and lonely people are," says Anthony Centore, a therapist with Thrive Boston, a counseling center in Cambridge, Mass. Many, especially in the younger generation, use the Internet to stay connected to friends – old and new. "But we are made for in-person contact," says Mr. Centore, "and that's what people will seek out, particularly at high emotional times such as the holidays."
A desire to avoid the loneliness they felt a year ago after they moved from California and Texas to the Seattle area led Net-savvy, tech-sector workers Amanda and Stephen Richardson to use Craigslist this year. "Thanksgiving was especially bleak," she writes in an e-mail, "so much food and no one to share it with. I vowed not to have that happen again."
Over this past year she has used Craigslist to carefully widen her circle of friends. "It's panned out well," she says, adding she has found many with similar interests. But she has run into the same problem as last year as the holiday season looms. Her new friends already have local family commitments.
She posted on Craigslist and through it opened a dialogue with a family of three, new to the area. They decided not to come, but she does have at least one committed guest from the ad. "Yea!" she says.
Physical distance isn't the only factor keeping people apart, points out Armen Berjikly, founder and CEO of Experience Project, an online social network devoted to uniting users through their experiences. Particularly with the stresses of a bad economy, he says, "there may be lots of people who don't want to or can't go home."