With cyber-Cupids out in force this month, the platonic promise of online networks deserves a look. Just how are we making and keeping friends in 2011? As of January, Facebook had 500 million users, each with an average of 130 “friends”; the twittosphere was atweet with 175 million users; LinkedIn was at 80 million members strong. But for all the typing and tapping, one has to wonder, are these meta-networks as vapid as the ethernet from which they sprung? Or are they truly the virtual coffee shops pundits have called the face of friendship to come?
Christine Bronstein, founder of A Band of Wives, would vote for the latter. The Kentfield resident started her network as very much a community, but in the kitchen-table-in-a-bathrobe mode.
“As I struggled with postpartum last year, I talked to my husband about how nice it would be to have a private way to catch up with and support my friends online,” she recounts. The solution arose the next day as if on cue. Flipping through a magazine in the Whole Foods checkout line, she saw an article on the free website-building tool Ning. “Ning is very easy to use,” Bronstein says. “I built the website in an afternoon and sent out 15 invitations to see what my friends thought about it.”
They thought positively. The friends sent out invitations in turn. “Women here in the Bay Area are tech savvy, socially active and supportive,” Bronstein notes. “Gina Pell, founder of (style and culture-watch site) Splendora, and a Marin native now living in San Francisco, got an invitation to ABOW and then wrote about it in her Friday newsletter ‘Gina’s 5 Things,’ from which hundreds of women around the country joined.
“The site is about all the members; it’s not about me or any one person,” Bronstein adds. “It is a private place where women are finding support, posting interesting blogs and forums and advertising their business or services in our Cool Wife Stuff section.”
Why “wives”? “One of my close friends, Christina Flach, came up with the term,” Bronstein says, “and we all started using it to refer to our friends.” As she reflects on ABOW’s home page, the word friend “has been so tainted by ‘frenemies,’ ‘BFFs’ and ‘un-friending.’ Women need a new term for our closest friends and allies: wives.” Bronstein’s loquacious husband, editor-at-large for Hearst Corporation Phil, touted the term in a column he wrote for SFgate called “Wives Have Wives—and That’s Healthy.”
Today, ABOW has 1,300 members of varying ages and marital status, logging in from California, New York, Chicago, even Iran.
Do they really offer all a friend can? Sometimes more: when a member recently relayed “a horrific story about her divorce,” Bronstein recalls, “many wives, who had never met this woman, rallied around her to provide words of support and legal advice from some of our wives who are lawyers.” In another instance, a melanoma survivor in Chicago teamed up with another survivor in L.A. to spread information on access to medical trials and disease prevention research.
“When women log on,” Bronstein says, “they can expect a short newsletter with a small bit of advice or a story, a list of events and a wife-support section,” along with “great blogs about everything from sex to fashion to financial management, some written by well-known professionals and some by aspiring writers.”
Member Lisa Brookes Kift of Larkspur, an author and marriage and family therapist, sees online communities in general as especially suitable for women. “We have a fundamental need to connect, and social networking via sites like Facebook and Twitter and sites like ABOW can help women connect as well as support each other, especially those who are living far from their family,” she says. “They provide the ability to maintain friendships that might not be maintained otherwise, i.e., because of distance, and for those interested in business networking, there’s the opportunity of getting to know people in your field with shared interests (who live) outside your area.” Through Twitter, for instance, Kift has contact with therapists in her field from around the world.
“Women wear far more hats these days (than before)—mom, friend, housekeeper, chef, wife, et cetera,” she concludes. “An online community is an easy place to find like-minded friends who can offer support.”
Old-fashioned in-person connections, too. Kift has made good friends, via both Twitter and Band of Wives, by logging off her phone or computer and attending organized meetings in the flesh. “Even though I didn’t know anyone, I figured, what do I have to lose?”
In fact, actual meetings are an essential complement to virtual ones, according to Amy Fierstein, a Band of Wives member and social media consultant. “Online relationships don’t replace face-to-face interaction,” she asserts, “especially where women and moms are concerned. Women want a reason to get dressed, put on some makeup and line up that sitter.”
Fierstein, whose two latest work projects are the parenting sites Modernmom.com and cradle.com, emphasizes it’s important to consider just how you want to use social media when presenting yourself online. “I use sites like ABOW for local communications, to see what is happening in my neighborhood and what cool and interesting women are up to in Marin. I use LinkedIn for networking with school and business colleagues, Twitter for brand and business promotions, and Facebook for a mixture of all—but mostly to socialize and connect with friends near and far. I spend most of my time on Facebook, hands down. According to my husband and many of my friends, too much time.”
“Basically,” adds Kift, “these social networking sites are like anything in life: you get what you put into it.”
So what does Bronstein expect her new “wives” club to become? “I hope it continues to grow and morph into a place where women can find both online and real-life connections and support.”
Looking for an online community in Marin?
Here are two—know of others? Let us know.
Tweetup Sally Kuhlman or @Sally_K of Mill Valley has been tweeting since March 2007, but didn’t start to organize Tweetups until the summer of 2009, when she joined forces with two local tweeters: Peggy Butler, @pobutler, and Lissa Rankin, @lissarankin. The Tweetups are open to anyone with opposable thumbs and a Twitter account and usually attract about a dozen people, though the crowds can double at times. No stranger to social media, Kuhlman has a blog and her own website, Sallyaroundthebay.com. Her day job is as an office manager at Davis Capital Partners in the Financial District in San Francisco, which allows plenty of time for her to Tweet during her commute on the bus. “I’ve made some really great in-real-life friends out of the Tweetups,” says Kuhlman, “I’ve also gotten some business connections and I know others have too. While most of our Tweetups are social, some have been fundraisers for local non-profit organizations.” One regular spot is Pacific Catch in Corte Madera. “They are the one restaurant in the Bay Area that really “gets” Twitter and social networking,” says Kuhlman, “and has welcomed us with open arms.” Find out about the next event at marintweetup.com.
Meetup Marin native Bryce Anderson has been hosting monthly “Meetups” in Marin to help small business entrepreneurs build their online presence. Anderson has worked in social media for about three years and has built over 30 fan pages attracting over one million fans for various organizations through his company fanpagestartup.com. “While we are here to help all levels of web abilities, we seem to be specializing in bridging the gap between baby boomers and the tech savvy Facebook generation,” he says. While Anderson is local, Meetup.com is a nationwide networking platform, which helps to organize groups’ meetings and messages. “When it comes to community-based online groups, the face-to-face interaction is crucial,” he says. “Unlike on Facebook where you probably already know most of your ‘friends,’ groups like Marin Meetups benefit from getting together.” Anderson leaves a bit of time at the end of each meeting for networking. He charges $20 a person to pay for the “lecture room” rental and refreshments. To find aout about the next meeting go to meetup.com/Marin-Small-Business-Owners.