Virtual world not any better than real one

Wireless calling plan with four cell phones, 3,000 minutes and unlimited long-distance: $160 a month.

Two state-of-the-art laptop computers with wireless Internet and Microsoft Office XP: $3,000.

Trying to communicate with my college-age children using either of those methods: Pointless.

Which is why I finally broke down and registered on Facebook - and one of only two reasons a 46-year-old man would have his own Facebook page. The other involves the FBI, a national registry, and severe restrictions on living close to schools and playgrounds.

If you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, welcome to my world six months ago. Facebook is a Web site where users, typically 14- to 24-year-olds, create their own personal "pages" complete with pictures and personal - sometimes too personal - information.

A user can even determine who gets to visit his or her page by accepting or rejecting other users as "friends." In that sense, it's not unlike the tree fort my buddies and I built when we were 10.

Each page also has something known as a "wall," on which visitors can leave messages. As a testament to its popularity, consider this: all by itself, Facebook has transformed writing on the wall from an act of vandalism to a societal norm.

As I understand it, the point of Facebook is to create a "virtual community." And that's where I experience a disconnect.

You see, my problem with online communities is not just that I'm technologically challenged or hopelessly uncool, although I plead guilty on both counts. It's just that, when I was in the aforementioned age bracket, we spent our time building real communities - groups of people who actually got together. Physically. In one place.

True, we were usually up to no good, but still.

Which leads me to another question I've been asking myself lately: when did we decide that the virtual world is somehow preferable to the real one? My dictionary defines "virtual" as "almost but not quite," as in "Lake Lanier is virtually empty" and "the Atlanta Falcons are virtually a professional football team."

And yet, for years, we've listened to various hucksters singing the praises of virtual classrooms, virtual reality games and virtual meetings. What's next? Virtual marriage? (Can't be as good as the real thing.) Virtual child-rearing? (Might be willing to give that a try.) Virtual dentistry? (OK, I could definitely live with that.)

But I digress. The point is, whatever I might think of the virtual world, I finally had to register on Facebook just so I can occasionally get in touch with my two oldest children, who are attending colleges that apparently don't have e-mail servers and are always in cell phone dead zones.

I just hope they accept me as a friend before the FBI gets involved.

E-mail Rob Jenkins at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.