In a Generation That Friends and Tweets, They Don't

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tomek Kott is so stubborn about not joining his friends -- in truth, nearly his entire generation -- on any social networking site that his wife launched a mini-crusade against him. Exploiting a tactic surely befitting our times, she whipped up a Facebook group last year called "Tomek Kott Must Join Facebook."

So far, it hasn't worked. Her husband, a 25-year-old physics graduate student who considers social networking a time-wasting cesspool of pseudo-communication, remains blithely unconnected.

"I am old-school in the personal touch way," said Tomek Kott, who lives in Silver Spring and has outsourced many of his digital communication duties to his wife, Anne. "All my friends from high school have also met my wife, and they're friends with her; my wife 'friended' them or whatever it's called."

Kott and others like him are social networking refuseniks: people in their 20s or early 30s who have gone off the grid, eschewing the ecology of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and the like. In Washington, refuseniks are not exactly operating in isolated, Luddite worlds: One is in a dance company, another is a rapper/hip-hop singer, another is a Georgetown undergraduate. Kott grew up in Redmond, Wash., where his father is a software engineer for Microsoft.

All of them, given their ages, qualify as exotic life forms.

The vast majority of their peers in the millennial generation are social networking pros: About 85 percent of all Internet users 18 to 34 visited Facebook, MySpace or Twitter in August, according to ComScore, a Reston-based Internet data research company. And about 84 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds check social networking sites at least once a week, according to a May study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

In the DCypher Dance company, friends of Natasha Hawkins, 28, consider her digital abstinence a nuisance.

They labor to send e-mails to share photographs, reexplain personal news that has been publicized on a Facebook news feed and wonder whether she knows about upcoming auditions or performances of other companies.

"Maybe I should pressure her to get on it," said Vikki Weinberger, 27, a fellow DCypher dancer who's been hesitant to do so because she doubts Hawkins will budge. "She's a very strong person in her morals and beliefs."

Hawkins, who eons ago joined and later left the social networking site BlackPlanet, views such realms as potential for drama and rumor. She believes in forging bonds the old way and preserving a tight circle of quality relationships.

"I have close friends -- and I know how to reach them," she said. "People create arguments, actual arguments or disagreements as a result of Facebook. I am like, 'Really? It's a computer network?' We need to stop."

She knows not everyone approves of her boycott. "I probably have 20 e-mail requests to join Facebook, and I have not accepted," Hawkins, a risk analyst for the federal government, said with a half-chuckle. "My friends hate me."

Social networking holdouts can be ironclad about their beliefs.

Kiran Gandhi, a junior at Georgetown University, has one lone laggard friend who refuses to join to protect her privacy.

"When someone tells you that they don't have Facebook, it's untouchable. It's a sign of disrespect to try to convince them" to join, Ghandi said.

Gandhi's friend, a senior in Georgetown's foreign service school, agreed to be interviewed but only on the condition that her name be withheld. (She's serious about her privacy.)

"I don't feel the need to go to the most trendy party because everyone found it on Facebook," she said. "Not having Facebook allows me to focus on things I really care about."

On a broad level, there might be differences between those who tweet or issue status updates and those who don't. Pew researchers point to a new but very small study they conducted to show that resisters and adopters 18 to 29 have demographic differences: Social networkers are more likely to have an annual income of $75,000 or more, and nonusers are more likely to have only a high school education.

Yet even as the refuseniks assert a lofty stance on privacy and cling to precious -- perhaps enviable -- face-to-face communication, they inevitably rely on friends or relatives who are members of the very sites they protest.

Anne Kott said she is happily married to the man she met at Bucknell University, where she first joined Facebook. However, she cannot help but feel as though she is in his employ.

"I am his Facebook secretary," she complained. "His friends will send me a Facebook message, 'Do you have Tomek's number?' And, 'What's Tomek doing?' He occasionally looks over my shoulder to see what photos are up, but he has never shown interest in starting his own account."

Ricardo Thomas, 23, who works at a photo restoration shop in Prince George's County, didn't go to college and is the only person he knows not on Facebook. His hip-hop band has pages on YouTube and MySpace, but he rarely checks them and doesn't have a personal site anywhere because he hates typing and computers. He leans on his friends to keep him up to speed, even about the doings of his ex-girlfriend.

"Last week, I was over at a friend's house, and he showed me a picture on Facebook of a girl I used to" date, Thomas said.

And? "I didn't know she had a kid!" he said. His friend "showed me her pictures, and I started looking at her status -- she was single."

"I told my friend to write her a message for me, saying, 'Ricardo is right here and he said hi,' " Thomas recounted. "But Facebook is funny because they've got this thing called a 'wall,' and she deals with a lot of guys on the site. She says she's single, but I know she's dating."

His lack of membership on Facebook has other disadvantages. Sometimes Thomas doesn't find out about parties being touted on the site until the last minute. Last week he almost missed a gathering at Johana's nightclub in Petworth.

"We knew about this on Monday!" said bandmate Nicholas Hewitt, 20, who goes by Booka Wildboy Hewitt on Facebook, standing outside the club Thursday night.

"Yeah, you really bring me all the Facebook stuff to my attention," Thomas said sheepishly. "I know eventually I'm going to have to do it. It will make stuff much smoother."

It might be just a matter of time for Thomas and his ilk. Technological innovations -- from hybrid corn in the first half of the 20th century to cellphones in the latter part -- can take years for most to adopt.

But social networking sites are seducing laggards at supersonic speeds. Although MySpace's monthly traffic dropped to about 64 million unique monthly U.S. visitors in August, Facebook's has soared to 92 million, and Twitter's has exploded to more than 20 million -- up from 1 million last year. In the past year, the fastest-growing age group on Twitter is the demographic that initially rejected it: those 12 to 24, according to ComScore.

Facebook, which just announced that it has 300 million members, might never win over Tomek Kott. His wife realizes that.

The "Tomek Kott Must Join Facebook" page, which has 19 members (including this reporter), does allay some of Anne's frustration. On the group's message board, a Baltimore friend wrote supportive words to the beleaguered wife: "This is awesome. Well done Anne. Take it to that weird tall guy."

And although Anne was kind enough to make the group's page accessible by invitation only, she couldn't resist having a bit more fun at her husband's expense. "I loaded," she said, laughing, "a somewhat ridiculous photo of him."

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