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Social Networking: Am I a Person Or an Item?

Social Networking: Am I a Person Or an Item?

In a World of Lists . . . Flashback to 1997

The project was a joint publishing venture. My team was working with a team in Australia. We were combining our expertise to build a 200+ book program for kids learning to read and the teachers who teach them. Most of the books were little readers — 8-, 16-, 24-, and 32-page books, written with subtle supports for early literacy.

Two parts of my role as the head of the department were to ensure that the supports were there and that the content would “travel.” The first part called for an understanding of how kids interact with text to gain meaning. The second required knowledge of whether content and presentation would work in classrooms from logging towns in Maine, through the Bible belt, in the land of “fruits and nuts,” to our diverse city schools.

The program was on an educational publishing timeline, which meant a missed deadline would cost an entire year. When a book didn’t work, the manuscript to replace it had to be fit the program and educational standards, had to be of highest quality, and had to be executed quickly — solutions had to be elegant and practical.

That’s when I started to notice. That was the year I first called the words “content,” not a story or a report. 1997. That’s when I noticed something happening in my office was also happening on TV.

“Richard,” I said to a close friend (and educational publisher) in the U.K. “I’m worried about the future. I see a trend in the books we are making and on television. The easiest way to generate content is to build a list — The Top Ten Monster Machines. If you watch close enough you will see how we take one list apart, to make another. Making lists is so much easier and faster than explaining something, writing a how-to, or telling a compelling story. We’re becoming a fast-food content culture.”

I worried that kids wouldn’t learn to enjoy the connections of thinking long and deep. Richard and I revisited the conversation more than once. We talked about it for hours. Conversations like that are the bedrock of our relationship.

Flash Forward to 2007

When I woke up this morning, I found myself publishing on the Internet. . . . with a profile on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and Ning, (and others I don’t get messages on.) I’m connected, and I connect people with each other and with information.

Most days it’s fun. Verbal volleyball can be a kick. When Twitter used the term, people, to mean friends for an Internet second, I got a chance to type, “I’ll have my people call your people and we’ll do lunch.” I’ve always wanted to say that.

Cute, but off the page and forgotten, rightfully so, minutes later.

For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the realities of going wide and going deep. It’s hard to have the time and the bandwidth to do both. It’s hard to keep up with it all. Every day it happens at a slightly faster speed. The wider I go, the shallower I get.

How much can you say in 140 characters? What happens if conversations on voice media become Ims and text messages?

I could ask more questions like that, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll ask you to read those two questions again.

I don’t want 1,500 friends I say “Hi” to every day. If it took only 10 seconds to find each name and to type that one word, that would be more than 4 hours of not thinking.

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Maybe it’s too many years of hearing about wasting time. Maybe it’s just my world view. A friend once said something about an onion. She said many folks do fine living on the papery surface. I prefer layer 17.

In the modern world, more alone than ever before. Demographics shout isolation in a crowd. In previous centuries, when extended families dominated the social landscape, a sizeable proportion of adults living alone was unthinkable. Lifestyle choices and advances in modern medicine have left us alone longer. Have we reached out to grasp as many connections as we can in response to feeling adrift?

We need relationships to function. How many and how deeply is the question.

Is it enough to know Liz is ___. Liz feels ___. Liz reads ___. Poke, nudge, smile at Liz.

Are infobytes all we need?

I’m slowing my speed and narrowing my focus. People aren’t items on a list.

View Comments (17)
  • Hi Liz

    I worried that kids wouldn’t learn to enjoy the connections of thinking long and deep.

    I’m with you on this, how can lists or 140 characters teach you how to connect in real life, in real deeper growing friendships and relationships? We need depth, sharing, time and patience for that – no instant bits and bytes, or how-to-do lists. That’s just ticking boxes, not experiencing the joy of connecting – learning ‘how to’ the hard and meaningful way.

    Karin H. (Keep It Simple Sweetheart, specially in business)

  • Hi Karin!
    I was surprised at how long I’ve been blogging without remembering this conversation I had in 1997. It so worried me then and yet here I’ve gotten with the rest of us now. . . . 140 characters are fun, but it’s like a trade show some folks think they’re reality.

  • Agree with that.
    A trade-show is nice to do (been there, done it), but the best thing from a trade show is getting to know the passers-by better, not just handing out a leaflet, card. Really engage them – or them you – into a real conversation is much nicer, more rewarding ;-) (with or without ‘trade-profit’)

    Karin H.

  • Yeah, Karin! I’m with you. The “hi, how are you?” surface interaction is only so beneficial. Real quality of relationship takes real interaction. :)

  • This one hurts, it really does. Only some weeks ago I was at a seminar about managing sales people. One of the speakers rehearsed the standard niceties and as much a people love to stress the ‘Hi, how are you’ I missed a thing.

    Actually it’s a pet peeve of mine and everytime I managed a new bar team it was the first rule, after greeting the guests.
    Notice when people leave and thank them (vocally and the whole team) for their visit. Wish them a nice day/evening.

    And what do I do nowadays, online? I poke people all day long and return the pokes whenever I have a second. D’uh.

  • Franky,
    Don’t misunderstand. Those nice things are still nice things and poking is fun too. Yes.

    But when there’s no substance between “Hi, how are you?” and “Have a nice evening.” with the majority of folks I meet, I find there’s no real relationship. I’m just a face, a person on a list. I want to know people more than that.

    I’m interested in what they think — ideas, feelings, experiences — like what you wrote in your comment. That’s the real thing.

  • Interesting observations and points. I find that there is great potential in making connections through new social sites. However there also is the temptation for people to equate more = better, meaning as many little square avatars as possible. But there must be a human limit before one is spread too thin, and the resulting connections too superficial.

  • Hi Webomatica,
    I’ve found that the 80/20 rule works there as well. The connections are few that get the opportunity to go deep. And the immediacy of a reason has to be present for the depth to catch fire in most cases is what I seem to be observing.

    The potential is great, but the fact is that we just can’t know everyone — just as we can’t read every feed. Yet so many are still determined to try to.

    I don’t know where you are, but I’m finding the why . . . why is often disappearing from much of the discussions as we move to “how-to” and what. And frankly the what is faster and easier.

    That’s why I’m narrowing a bit to manage myself and my profile. Quality, Schedule, Budget seems to apply in real life too. I’m choosing for quality. It’s sounds like you’re looking to do the same.

  • Liz, I completely agree with you on this. It’s a shame that we have become a fast-food content & relationship culture. Alvin Toffler talked about this change in his books Future Shock & Third Wave.

    I’ve noticed this trend over the last decade not just through media but also through the teens who do. Kids that aren’t hooked to the net/tv/ seem more capable of engaging in deeper conversations than a net-connected kid. I spend more time with the latter, having to lay foundations that should have been laid much earlier.

    Unfortunately, to allow people to think, to reflect, to cultivate relationships requires a society that isn’t hooked on the “More-is-Better & Faster-is-Better” philosophy.

  • Hi Xdroot,
    To think, to reflect, to cultivate . . . to mature, to grow, to generate.

    I’ve often wondered what Toffler wrote about, but when Future Shock came out . . . the title and the cover made me not want to read the predictions that he was making. I guess I’m glad I didn’t.

    It’s sad the way we make each other invisible. We talk on our cell phones in elevators and invade another’s space as if the other person isn’t there. We say, “I’m sorry but, I’m in a mood so gimme that.” Yes. That’s what I heard yesterday. We don’t hear each other or ourselves anymore, because we don’t know how to still ourselves to listen.

    To breathe. to aspire. to inspire. to wonder. The empty calories of small talk connections are sad when I think of the rich texture of stilling ourselves to hear the sounds of what we could be saying.

  • Liz,

    This was sort of what I was trying to get at when commenting on your blog only did I not put it as well as you nor distill my thoughts so clearly beforehand which probably made me chose the wrong starting point.

    It is a matter of depth in relation to time, but also as part of my point was, in relation to distance. The internet may enable us to shorten distances, but actually getting closer still takes time. And effort.

  • Hi Jan,
    Your last sentence is so powerful. I so agree. Thank you for bringing it here and taking the time to share it.

    Culture enters the picture too. What one culture finds close another might more distant . . . that’s what I can’t seem to say right.

  • Hi Liz,

    Deep thinkers are fast becoming a rarity in our modern world. You would think this to be a good thing – for the “deep thinkers” that is. Rarity usually means “high demand”. Alas, I think not in this case.

    Having been in Technology since leaving school some 23 years ago, in theory, I should be a true proponent of it. However, I am ambivalent toward it.

    Where technology clearly delivers time and labour-savings I am thrilled by it. (Well, not literally but you know what I mean.) Yet, when we make these huge time savings and it was notionally to increase our QUALITY of LIFE (hopefully as measured by spending more time with people and activities that we love), what do we do with that time? Give it up to more technology of course!

    So, I would agree with you. For me, I would rather have 2, 3 or 4 friends that I know deeply, intimately, any day than have a hundred people that I dupe myself into calling “friends” (as nice and as pleasant as they are).

    Live life. Love Life. Always.


  • My friend’s profile claims she has 567 “friends”. That’s impossible! You wouldn’t even have enough time in the year to see them all. Do people add anyone they have ever come into contact with? It’s so stupid. Those sites are supposed to bring people together but really they are just isolating everyone. A profile comment is not the same as a coffee with a friend.

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