I joined Facebook last week. A relatively late adopter but maybe not that tardy for my demographic (at least according to Business Week), I am a nearly 60-year-old woman with little wish to pass time idly and even less patience for chitchat. I’m a crackerjack at email, texting, MMS and IM, not to mention my wicked skills with a cell phone while driving. In fact these days, my land line hardly ever rings. Most of my communication with friends and family is via electronic media.

I had resisted this next level of virtual communication, but I was curious about it and my 26-year-old son, Josh, with us on vacation, offered to walk me through the set-up. On the profile page, I filled in my birth date, checking the option to show only month and date. I entered my high school, college and graduate school, years and majors. Doing that, I had more or less outed myself age-wise, which was fine. (Editor’s note: WVFC has its own Facebook page, at http://facebook.com/Womens.Voices.for.Change. )

A more vexing issue: What is my name? I puzzled over how to list myself.

I have many names. The first, Shelley (Sarah, in Hebrew), comes from my great-great grandmother, Sora Feyga Sher. Sora was whisked from a shtetl in Pusalotas, Lithuania in 1906 to care for the children of her son, Benjamin, whose 34-year-old, eight-months-pregnant wife had been accidentally shot and killed sitting on her porch in Englewood, N.J., while watching the Fourth of July parade go by. (I’ll write another time of those years, when the orphaned children at Sora’s home included my grandmother, Anna, then 10 years old.)

My middle name, Beth (Brucha), is in memory of my great grandfather Benjamin. Rapkin is the last name I was born with: I am a daughter of Edwin and Dorothy Rapkin (daughter of Anna.) As a kid, I heard myself called “Smelly Napkin” a lot. I never liked the sound of my name. I wanted something more anonymous, less ethnic. It made me feel labeled and stereotyped in a way I resisted, fueled by a powerful urge not to be reduced to type based on thumbnail tags: I was Jewish, raised in a middle-class apartment building in Brooklyn and went to sleepaway camp in the Poconos. I had no choice but to go along with my parents’ dream of a house in the suburbs, so in 10th grade I moved to Roslyn, Long Island. I did poorly academically and socially in high school and started at a middling college.

I transferred to a better one, majored in French and got married at 21 to a fellow student named Singer (whose surname I still use). We had two sons and lived on Central Park West. I started an event management company that lasted for 26 years and got divorced after 17 years of marriage. I fell in love with a man named Gross, married him, and moved to Maryland. I don’t use his last name except when we travel and when dealing with household services. In Bethesda, I joined the boards of an art college and our synagogue, drove a Taurus wagon and had a swimming pool and a basketball hoop.

I might seem totally knowable through these facts. But I know, profoundly, that I am not.

The next step: Who are the people in my neighborhood?

Citizenship in the Facebook universe has required accepting right away that an awfully nice and tender noun – “friend” – has turned into a techno-smartass verb. To be in Facebook is to “friend” others and to be “friended” by them. The website is powerful. It has the creepy ability to go into my Outlook contact list (if I ask it to) and identify everyone from it who is already on Facebook, to give me the opportunity to “friend” them. This research created some interesting and unexpected prospects for new “friends” — the guy who cleans our gutters, a woman who tutored my son in high school and my husband’s ex-wife’s husband’s daughter.

A sample Facebook page, annotated to demonstrate all the information flowing to it.

I got busy trying to understand the language and culture of this new land. “What is ‘poked’?” I asked Josh.

“Nothing, really,” he answered. “It just means you thought of someone and sent them a message that you had ‘poked’ them, which then shows up on your Wall page.” Uh huh.

“Do I have to keep those intrusive sidebar ads visible all the time, the ones exhorting me to reduce my belly fat using their miracle of nature?”

“Oh, those? I didn’t even notice they were there,” he replied. Are you kidding me?

“How about deleting the suggestions for “friending” friends of friends of friends?” I wanted to know.

“No can do, Mom,” he replied, only a little amused. Alright-y then.

Overwhelmed by the foreignness of it all, I reminded myself of my own mother when I was trying to teach her how to get onto Gmail. “What is a contact?” she had asked. “I can’t find the cursor. Do I put the arrow in the little box below the pictures or in the big box with the colors? Can you Internet me a picture of the baby?”

At almost 85, she is still one of the brightest bulbs in any chandelier, but this new world of computers was so awkward for her. For the longest time, she could not grasp the concept of the Caps Lock toggle, so I felt she was screaming at me in all her early emails. As she became more secure, however, she started to send me Jewish jokes and political forwards, along with instructions for keeping my cell phone safe from hackers, a reminder to send a note to her friend whose husband had just died and requests to buy her airline tickets online. She had conquered her generation’s version of Facebook. Can I do the same with mine?

The technological generation gap has been much written about, from all vantage points. We are all busy shaking our heads at the customs and failings of our elders and our children. Why is it necessary to plan everything? What’s wrong with an e-mail thank-you note? Why buy Sweet ‘n Low when you can grab a handful in a restaurant? Everyone is just muddling through.

Facebook is about playing with connections: I searched for and found an old friend in London who was, for a time 30 years ago, an intimate with whom I shared my most uncensored thoughts in a coffee shop in New York at 85th and Columbus. I have asked to “friend” her. She has not responded. What do I make of that? How do I contend with the shaky feeling she might not want to “friend” me?

On the bright side, I now have the unexpected opportunity to check out when my nieces last got drunk, that my musical friend went to a concert in Norfolk, Va., and what my grandson had for breakfast this morning.

I am interested, to some extent, in peoples’ news and peregrinations, but I most certainly do not want them up in my business. I will have to be vigilant and choosy about how much I disclose on Facebook. I marvel at the things people want to share: He maxed out his Netflix queue, their puppy made an excellent #2 today, and that stye on her eye is starting to clear up. Between Facebook and Twitter, it’s as if the world has gone crazy and everyone has stuck vanity plates on their foreheads.

For me, though, the words will come with a little more care. As I contemplate how to present myself on Facebook, I realize that this is where the work is for me. It is about writing and paring down and asserting and drawing lines and taking chances and telling the truth. I long for and trust that I will find a name that really belongs to me, and that my “friends” will prove as real as I am.

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  • Laura Sillerman September 14, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Verb or noun, friend is the word for Shelley Singer. She so clearly is a friend to all those who long for observation with feeling, assessment with wonder and logic with humor. Facebook terrifies me, but this has made me a bit more curious about and open to it– another miraculous result of reading a Shelley post.

  • Adrian Miller September 14, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Enjoyed your post. Facebook is also about personal branding and for entrepreneurs it helps to level the branding playing field that was (is?) often limited to those with big budgets and technical wizards to help put it all to work. I love Facebook for the fact that it allows me to present, promote and share work-related information with my world. I also love the fact that I can crow about articles that I publish and recognition that I receive and do so with impunity.