To fill a table, they go online
Web connections, made with care, can add to holiday cheer and gatherings of new friends.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."