Although small-town gossip columns are on their way out, we now have a high-tech replacement. It is called Facebook.
The online "social-networking" website designed by a Harvard college kid for other Harvard college kids has caught on and now boasts over 120 million members.
To the uninitiated, let me suggest you stay that way. Facebook, like much of the Internet, is an addictive waste of time.
That said, Facebook allows you to track down old friends from your high school or college. You can spend hours looking up people from your past.
Without bothering the person, you can look at their picture to see how bald they are. But if you want any other details, you have to ask them to be your friend.
That is where it starts feeling less like college and more like the playground in second grade.
The other person gets a message "Wilbert has added you as a friend. We need to confirm you are friends with Wilbert so you can be friends on Facebook."
If you confirm, Wilbert will have access to all your information and you will have access to Wilbert's.
Sometimes it gets bizarre. Six months ago, my sister asked me to be her friend. I suppose it is about time, since we're both in our forties, but it felt oddly formal.
Then, my friend Mark, who I have known since third grade, asked me to be his friend. I confirmed. We're 1,000 miles apart, but the little ritual probably embarrassed us both.
It is fine when you know the person, but what happens when somebody you have never heard of asks to be your friend?
For that, there is a button labeled "Ignore."
I think it's just plain rude to ignore somebody who wants to be your friend.
At the same time, you don't want to give just anybody access to your musical tastes, email address, career facts and who knows what else.
So, there I sit in front of my computer, feeling like I did in second grade when the girl nobody liked asked me to marry her on the monkey bars. Good grief. How do I get out of this without being mean?
Then, there is the matter of asking somebody else to be your friend. I have found old acquaintances, asked them to be my friend--only to be ignored.
One college classmate was kind enough to write back that he didn't know me from Adam, but that he'd still be my friend, whoever I was.
There I sat in front of my computer, feeling like I did when I was picked last for dodge ball.
Why do you want Facebook friends? Well! When you are friends, you get to check up on your friends and see what they're doing. That's where the gossip column stuff comes in.
In the old gossip columns, people reported the names of who came over for coffee and what evening they went over to the Red Apple for supper.
On Facebook, people report even more than that. Every time you open your Facebook page, you get to see what all your "friends" are up to.
"Melinda is making macaroni and cheese."
That's harmless enough. But some of these people are superhuman. "Victor just ran 8 miles this morning and is eating the granola he made yesterday in preparation for climbing Mt. McKinley this afternoon."
Okay, why did this person sit down and report his remarkable feats as he was performing them? To make the rest of us feel less?
I suspect it is for exactly the same reason that people report their forenoon lunch visitors to the gossip columnist. And it is beyond me.
But I tried it anyway. "Eric is drinking coffee," I wrote. Immediately, the report was flashed to all forty-seven of my friends.
It felt stupid, but I got back several messages such as "Enjoy your java, Eric!" and that was kind of nice.
Athough the software is decidedly adolescent, Facebook is used by people of all ages. For instance, John McCain has only 250,000 friends listed on his Facebook page, while Barack Obama has more than 1.5 million.
I have a ways to go before I rack up those sort of numbers. Until then, I am just happy that I have forty-seven friends, many of whom I know personally.