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Last summer, I split my personality seven ways. Really, I'm not crazy. Turns out it's a great way to network. Here's the secret: Do it online.

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I got the idea in June. I had decided to leave my job as a writer and editor for a journalism website in Florida to start graduate school in Memphis. I'd never been there, but the school offered me a free ride, so I accepted. It didn't take long for me to realize that when I moved, my social life was going to vanish. I didn't know a single person in my new town.

In the old days -- before the Internet, that is -- the best way to meet people in a new place was to get out of the house and be social. Go to bars. Go to the theater. Go to the dog park. Go anywhere. That perspective can work on the Internet, too. Over the past few years, dozens of websites dedicated to connecting people have appeared. They're called social networking sites. Think of them as distinct places -- like the bar or the dog park -- except they exist online.

Here's where my split personality comes in. Before I moved, I made seven profiles, on seven different sites. I could have made more, but I picked the sites I thought would be best for helping me make new friends in town. And after all, each profile exposed me to thousands -- in some cases, millions -- of people I might have something in common with. I did all of this from my desk. And it took me less than an hour.

Let's start with the site I found most useful -- Facebook. I've had a profile there since 2004. It shows a picture of me, lists some of my interests, and displays my contact information. Only people with whom I am "friends" can see this stuff. Inviting someone to be your "friend" on Facebook takes just one click. My profile also includes pictures I've posted; my status, which tells my friends what I'm up to, similar to an "away message" on AOL Instant Messenger; and my "wall," a message board to which my friends can post notes for all my other friends to see. A "newsfeed" tells my friends what I've been doing on Facebook -- maybe I posted a new picture, changed my status, or wrote on someone's "wall."

FS Social networking websites

With 64 million members, Facebook is the second largest online social network in the world. (MySpace, the biggest, has about 110 million members, but it is aimed mostly at young people.) Almost everyone I know in their mid-20s has a Facebook profile (although many people older than 30 also have profiles there). So, when I decided to move, it seemed logical enough to assume that lots of people in my new town would also have profiles. But how do you find them? You can search for friends in dozens of different ways. Search by name, hometown, birthday, or occupation. Search by e-mail address. Or search by interest, like bicycling, knitting, or gardening.

But the best way to find friends on Facebook, I discovered, is to search by groups. A group is nothing more than a page made to gather a number of people around a common interest. People make groups for hobbies, events, sports teams, companies, places. Groups look a lot like profiles. They tell something about the group, and provide space for the members to post messages, pictures, and videos. They also list the group members, so they can contact one another. I found a group for my new school, my new graduate program, and my new neighborhood.

Before I moved, I had made a Facebook group only once. As part of an assignment for work, I created a group called "Journalists and Facebook." It grew quickly, and after a few months, it had several thousand members. This sort of viral growth is not uncommon, mostly because Facebook notifies members when their friends join groups, in case they want to join, too. Eventually, I ran a search in the group for journalists based in Memphis. I found several. When I got to town in the fall, I had dinner with the education reporter from the daily newspaper. I also had lunch with an editor at a local weekly newspaper. She eventually offered me a job. I even met a few of the young journalists who work for the college newspaper at my school.

FS Social networking old ways

It's important to remember that when you connect with someone online -- when, for instance, you become someone's "friend" on Facebook -- you give them access to your personal information. When making new friends online, take the same care you would when doing so in real life. Only post information you're comfortable sharing with other people. You can never be too careful anywhere in today's society.

Facebook, as those of you who have used it can attest, generally does a better job of helping you keep up with old friends than it does helping you make new ones. This is true for social networking sites in general.

One site that works hard to put its members in touch with new people, however, is the professional networking site LinkedIn. My profile there looks like a resume. It lists my education, professional experience, and contact information. It lets me connect with other professionals I meet, and it lets me browse their connections. It's a lot like going to a cocktail party at a business conference, minus the cocktails.

Another site that's designed to bring about actual face-to-face contact between people who have never met before is MeetUp. This is one of the most innovative and exciting social networking sites out there. The site exists solely to bring about real-world meetings between people who have common interests. Every week, "meetups" happen across the country among people interested in books, pets, science, religion, sports, and dozens of other topics.

I didn't know about MeetUp when I moved to Memphis, and meetups here are scarce. But the site is growing every day, and if you live in a large city, there may be dozens of MeetUps happening all around you. So, get online, and start meeting people. Make a Facebook page, and look for groups. Build up your LinkedIn resume, and find some professional contacts in your neighborhood. And sign up for MeetUp. Best place to start? Try searching for the "New In Town" event.

These social networking sites might not replace the old ways of meeting people, at least not yet, but they can help you make the transition to a new town and a new life a little less daunting.

Pat Walters is a freelance journalist from Memphis whose work has appeared in The St. Petersburg Times, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. He swears he’s not stalking anyone at the seven social networking sites he regularly haunts. If you really must, reach him at featuredstories@adamcorp.com.