There is an alternate universe called social networking, where like-minded people are linked through the Internet for one reason or another...

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There is an alternate universe called social networking, where like-minded people are linked through the Internet for one reason or another: their school, politics, where they work or what music they enjoy.

These platforms (MySpace is the prototype, with Facebook an emerging alternative) enhance electronic communication and make it possible for people with similar interests to meet and communicate.

The effect is to enhance the messaging process, with plain old text supplemented by the ability to share pictures, sound and video.

Those inhabiting these groups are becoming more diverse — that is to say older — as the word gets around. At first, Facebook closed its membership to anyone who wasn’t a student. MySpace was a little more inclusive, but those of us over a certain age can’t escape the feeling we are lurking when visiting a MySpace page. That is changing, and these environments now accommodate all who can get their mind around the concept.

Except there is the possibility that it can get away from you. I signed on to Facebook last week, in an invitation from the subject of a story. I clicked through the sign-on process not really paying attention, then discovering that I had issued a command to scan my address book, match it with Facebook members, and invite them to become “my friend.”

About 20 invitations were sent, with six people responding in the affirmative. None of them were “friends” and some were actually strangers; people I had written once or twice. I have no idea who was in the larger group and am still wondering if I should track them down and write them an apology for asking them to join what seems like a cult.

Thankfully, no one sent me a note that “declined” my offer of friendship. That would have resulted in an awkward social situation: I really did not want them to be a “friend,” but their refusal could be a real ego-burner. I would be rejected by people who I don’t even like in the first place.

Luckily, the recipients possessed more social-networking graces than I. Being a Facebook or MySpace “friend” is not a huge commitment.

These folks are not likely to ask you to bail them out of jail or request an alibi, like some of your real pals. The word “friend” has changed its meaning. There is no commitment, other than the pledge to swap messages online. And if the friendships get uncomfortable, these are the kind of friends you can remove with the click of a mouse.

Online “attax”: In a somewhat scary turn, the Internal Revenue Service has issued a warning about scurrilous e-mails sent out under its name.

This is not an identity-theft scheme; rather, it is a flat-out Trojan attack. So anyone receiving an electronic message that he is being investigated for filing a false return should do two things: ignore the message and delete the attachment.

Many of us will find it difficult to actually ignore a message from the IRS, as we know about their unfavorable interest rates. On the other hand, we may be unwilling to call the agency and ask if we are being audited on the chance that the person answering the phone will respond “No. Should we?”

So even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, you should delete the attachment and take a cold shower. If the IRS wants to examine your return, it will contact you the old-fashioned way.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.