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Keeping up with social networking sites: How much is enough?

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

You must tumbl (tumble?), or haven't you heard? You must tumbl (tumblify?) because the micro-blogging site Tumblr.com is growing fast -- its estimated 3.3 million daily visitors up 50 percent from April, according to Quantcast.com. You must tumbl (Seriously, what is the verb here?) because the early adopting tech people tell you to use Tumblr. "There's a new must-have social networking address," chirped a recent news article, and blogs offer guidance on the most "essential" tumblogs.

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While you are pondering this site -- founded in 2007 but spruced up this year -- and the communication possibilities it offers, you might feel . . .

"The academic in me feels like, 'Oh, this will be interesting,' " says Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of sociology at University of Maryland Baltimore County who studies social networks. "The user in me goes, 'Oh nooo, another one!' "

There's so much social networking she has not yet accomplished. "I really wanted to dive more into the music communities, like Last.fm and Fetch . . . but that's going to be a huge investment," she says. Meanwhile, "I've been avoiding the location-based ones because they're a whole other ball of wax. It's nagging me."

At some big or small level, it's nagging all of the people who are mired enough in social networking to bother following the latest developments. This isn't everyone -- despite the fact that institutions from your local radio station to your dry cleaner beg you to follow them on Twitter, there are whole swaths of people who just don't give a flying friend request.

But consider this: At one point in their centuries-old history, the Amish were not the technological relics they are today. Everyone else was churning and buggying right along with them. At some point, electricity was invented and the Amish had to reject it. Cars were invented and they took a pass. We're good with the buggy, they said. Motor on without us.

Now, in an onslaught of sites designed to aid connection, communication and cross-promotion, individual stopping points must be declared. When will you go 21st-century Amish?

"I do Twitter; I do Facebook; I do Lawyer Connection" via Ning, says Gwynne Monahan, a legal consultant. "I did MySpace when it was popular"; now she uses it to find new music. She will not, however, do Foursquare, the network centered on virtually checking into real-life locations. That's her boundary. She doesn't have the time, and plus, "there's just no reason for people to know where I am."

On odd occasions, she wonders whether she's drawn the boundary too soon. She was visiting New York and a group of friends met up at a concert. "Everyone whipped out their phones and started checking into Foursquare" to announce their exact locations. It was easier, she admits, for some people in the group to have the application. Rather than the endless phone calls ("No, by the men's room!"), everyone immediately knew when others had arrived by their check-ins, and then everyone herded inside.

Still, the thought of plugging into yet another tool . . .

"The basic notion that people reach a technological saturation point applies to a lot of people," says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, which studies the Web's impact on society. "They literally say, enough is enough . . . and my mind is going to blow up and I can't take it anymore."

(Privacy concerns, like Monday's announcement that Facebook's most popular applications transmit personal data to marketing companies, can exacerbate already uneasy relationships with social networks.)

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