It wasn't very long ago that I could not fathom the allure of online social networks like MySpace or Facebook. They seemed like a poor substitute for real interaction. When I had an actual need to find someone online, I signed up using my husband's last name, although I have never used it. I kept my maiden name.

Nice and anonymous, I figured. I'm not committing to anything and no one will know I was here.

But a funny thing happened when I used my alias in the cyber social world. I discovered I really want to be me. It was no longer just curiosity. Still, that meant I had to go back and change my name in my profile, which was embarrassing. Uh, sorry, forgot who I was for a minute. I opted, on Facebook, to hyphenate rather than admit I'd lied.

Now if you're younger than my half-century mark, this probably all seems pretty silly. But while lots of middle-age people are early adopters of this online networking scene, some of us are lagging a bit. I'm not very adept at this.

I am, however, a game old gal, and it turns out I like it in cyberspace, where within about three hours of creating an account, I was starting to get "friend" invites from people who really are friends, most of whom I'd lost touch with over the last decade or so. I've been found by former members of the University of Utah Chrony staff, whom I mentored over the course of several years. And I've found several old classmates.

Back in high school, I couldn't imagine we wouldn't all know each other forever. Thirty years later, I couldn't imagine where they'd all gone and why they were so hard to find. Facebook solved that.

I see several of my colleagues online, which provides a very different and enlightening view of them.

You need only browse a few profiles to see we're all using this cyber circuit for something different.

Several friends use it to keep in touch with extended family. My mom used to send a Christmas letter that had all the news on each of us to her wide circle of friends. This is a more up-to-date version of that for them, a place to share not only news, but photo albums and favorite music.

One of my friends posts links to the stories he writes, while another posts funny and sometimes biting political cartoons. A single pal is flirting pretty publicly online and it's kind of fun to watch without being seen doing so.

A friend who recently retired said she went online to stay current; she's worried about getting old. She's one of several pals who "play" online, challenging each other to various games, like Scramble. My daughter Aly, who at 10 is cyber-savvy, uses my account while I cook dinner; she's on an endless scavenger hunt to collect colorful virtual eggs that are hidden in other people's profiles. You hatch the best ones to get cute critters.

We brag online, posting our IQ scores and other flattering quiz results. A couple of my acquaintances have given themselves virtual promotions on MySpace, claiming responsibilities they don't have. Maybe they forgot they're being watched.

Some people have created avatars and fictional lives online. I'm not going there; my flesh-and-blood life keeps me pretty occupied, thanks.

I know people who stop in for a second, pausing to update their mood: "Libby is tired. Jane is waiting by the phone." Very subtle. And it's all a lot of fun, providing an instant sense of validation. People respond in real time.

That speed of communication is one of the best features. You can touch bases with people you care about quickly and it feels more interactive and content-rich than e-mail.

Still, my initial dismissal wasn't all wrong, either. It's easy to get lost in cyber space and waste an inordinate amount of time. I've looked at the clock in shock, having burned hours I was going to use more constructively. And I can see how it could become a couch potato's substitute for actually spending time with people. And it's not private. Even when it seems that way.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]