To fill a table, they go online

Web connections, made with care, can add to holiday cheer and gatherings of new friends.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

Ed Buckingham, a residential designer from Westford, Mass., says that two years ago he was "at a crossroads in [his] life and didn't want to put a damper on Thanksgiving" for his wife and children. "So, I went online and looked for another place to go for the meal." He found Joe Catricala, a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary who was bringing friends and strangers together for the celebration at a church some 45 minutes away in Hamilton, Mass.

"I drove all the way there, not knowing what to expect, exactly," says Mr. Buckingham, but there were other strangers there and that put him at ease. The fellowship he experienced helped him turn his life around, he says. Now, two years later, he is helping Mr. Catricala offer a much larger Thanksgiving event – using the Internet again. "I've always said you can find anything on Craigslist," says Buckingham, "including God."

As with any virtual relationship, people must use due diligence to ensure personal safety, points out Vivek Sodera, cofounder of Rapleaf, an Internet consumer-research firm. There are countless stories about the negative experiences of people who unintentionally become involved with sexual predators or others with criminal intent. Online tools can be harnessed to help, he says.

"You can search the big social network sites such as Facebook or MySpace to find out about a lot of people these days," he says. Because the next generation of users has a vast web of interconnection, the absence of information itself can be a warning sign. He hastens to add, though, that no virtual search can replace such common-sense tactics as obtaining referrals through common acquaintances, meeting in public places, and asking a lot of questions.

Still, the motivation to reach out can be noble. When San Diego bartender Deanna – who asked that only her first name be used for this article – realized she was going to be on duty for Thanksgiving, she decided to harness the power of the digital world. "I just care about people and was thinking about how many people might not have a place to go," she says via e-mail. She posted an ad on Craigslist and has had 35 responses so far; five of the people actually came by the bar. She says she did get one inquiry that didn't seem appropriate and she politely declined to follow up.

As more Netizens use cyberspace to overcome physical and emotional isolation, expect the unexpected, says Steve Jones, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor in the department of communications. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified Steve Jones'splace of employment.]

Much remains to be learned about how the Internet will affect social ties, Mr. Jones says. But in a world where it's possible to have hundreds of cyber "friends" on Facebook, a new value is already emerging, that of connecting in person, he says: "The currency of this new medium is the time spent with individual friends."

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