Every Direction At Once

Late­ly, you can­not take a step in any direc­tion with­out land­ing thigh-deep in social net­work­ing, talk about social net­work­ing, media reports about social net­work­ing, invi­ta­tions to take part in social net­work­ing, or most like­ly some gum­bo of all of the above. I’m not going to define social net­work­ing for you here: if you are read­ing this you know full well what it is, and besides, it is may be a bit like jazz: if you have to ask, you’ll nev­er know.

For me, it is easy to slip into a “col­lect them all men­tal­i­ty” with almost any­thing. It has hap­pened with Nine Inch Nails albums, the nov­els of Andrew Vachss, Dun­geons & Drag­ons minia­tures, and now it is hap­pen­ing with social net­work­ing sites. Face­book, Twit­ter, LinkedIn, Tum­blr, Gath­er – and the list grows every time you check back. Does one need to use them all? Or to go one far­ther, can one use them all?

Now that I am in the game, I have been giv­ing a lot of thought – scat­tered, inco­her­ent thought, but still – to my own use of these var­i­ous site and ser­vices. I don’t want to be using any one of them just to be using them, yet that is often what it feels like for any giv­en one in turn. So the time has come, I think, to look hard at the why and how of my use of each of these sites. You may as well come along.

Facebook

Let me go ahead and lead off with the big one. I hung back a lit­tle at first from the Face­book lem­ming rush (of course, it was still osten­si­bly lim­it­ed to stu­dents at that stage, so it wasn’t like I was eli­gi­ble any­way). But once my lit­tle broth­er gave me a demo, I was con­vinced: this was the tool I had been look­ing for to recon­nect with scores of peo­ple from col­lege I had utter­ly failed to keep in touch with. And so it has proven.

Yet once you pass a cer­tain num­ber (I don’t know what that num­ber is, pre­cise­ly) it becomes impos­si­ble to rea­son­ably pre­tend that any­thing like actu­al friend­ship is going on amongst all the “Friends” you have accu­mu­lat­ed. I know this both­ers many peo­ple a great deal, and has elicit­ed a lot of invec­tive about the shal­low­ness (at best) of much, most, or all of the inter­ac­tion on this and sim­i­lar sites. For me, it is all about expec­ta­tions, and call­ing a thing what it is. No, I am absolute­ly not hav­ing mean­ing­ful human inter­ac­tions with all or even most of the two hun­dred-odd Friends I cur­rent­ly have. There are per­haps 20–25% of these that I inter­act with reg­u­lar­ly: a com­ment on their sta­tus, a link post­ed on their Wall, a “Like” on a pic­ture of their new­born. None of this is the stuff of friend­ship, but of friend­li­ness. But as I am con­scious of that, I expect noth­ing else.

There are some few among this group who I do con­sid­er true friends in the full sense of the word, and our inter­ac­tions are more fre­quent and involved, and they are not lim­it­ed to the con­fines of Face­book, either. And there are a great many more with whom I do not inter­act with any­thing resem­bling fre­quen­cy or mean­ing­ful­ness, and that is okay, too. These are per­sons who I would not oth­er­wise even know the where­abouts of, let alone what they were doing per­son­al­ly and pro­fes­sion­al­ly: acquain­tances from col­lege and ear­li­er. For these last, I expect noth­ing sig­nif­i­cant from our Face­book con­nec­tion. Rather, Face­book serves here as an inter­ac­tive address book, giv­ing me a place­hold­er in each of their lives I would not oth­er­wise have. In old­en days I sup­pose this would be the equiv­a­lent of the Christ­mas card list set: peo­ple we have no inter­ac­tion with through­out the year, but yet still labo­ri­ous­ly main­tain a min­i­mal degree of con­nec­tion to, for form’s sake if noth­ing else. And if I ever do need or want to con­nect with any­one of them more ful­ly, I know how to reach them; I don’t need to spend hours on Google or hire a P.I. to track them down.

There are a huge num­ber of dis­trac­tions on Face­book, it is true: most of them can be turned off, blocked, hid­den, or ignored. It can be a soul-emp­ty­ing vir­tu­al world of mir­rors if you let it. But with a clear sense of what you want from it, I still find it to be a valu­able and flex­i­ble tool for keep­ing in touch in a frag­ment­ed soci­ety.

LinkedIn

You can only get so far call­ing this ser­vice “like Face­book, but for pro­fes­sion­als” I sup­pose. Yet I have yet to real­ly aban­don this sum­ma­ry myself. I love hav­ingmak­ing one. And While I would hard­ly print off the results of my LinkedIn pro­file and hand it in (which is the­o­ret­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble), I do real­ly like fill­ing in the details of my edu­ca­tion and work his­to­ry and hav­ing it all line up neat and sweet.

Yet there are pit­falls to this set­up. As Mer­lin Mann puts it, “I am not a base­ball card,” and as much as LinkedIn is clear­ly “pro­fes­sion­al” in nature, I find it a lot hard­er to avoid feel­ing like I am just col­lect­ing peo­ple than I do on Face­book. (The site’s own approach to net­work sta­tis­tics does noth­ing to assuage this feel­ing, either.) And out­side of tra­di­tion­al cor­po­rate envi­ron­ments, its util­i­ty strikes me as unproven. Of course, this ser­vice is still evolv­ing, and it has not yet done me any harm, so I will stick with it for the fore­see­able future.

Twitter

Ah, Twit­ter: the great mys­tery that every­one is try­ing to fig­ure out at once. “What to do with Twit­ter?” the towns­peo­ple all cry. And I don’t have a good answer, and I think that is because there is no one right answer.

For a long time I was daunt­ed by the fact that tweets seem to cov­er the same ground as the Face­book sta­tus update: a quick, quirky line or three about what you are up to, or some obser­va­tion on life and its mad­ness. I dou­ble post­ed some things, I tried alter­nat­ing plat­forms for my ran­dom out­bursts, but it seemed a point­less exer­cise – because it was.

What has worked for me – and this is just me: again, I don’t believe there is one “right” way to employ Twit­ter – is not in the nature of the posts, but in the nature of the poster. I have elect­ed to keep Face­book as my space, where I inter­act with my friends and sundry acquain­tances as myself. On Twit­ter, while I may make sim­i­lar obser­va­tions or quips, I try to do so, to some degree, in char­ac­ter. My Twit­ter account, as I have set­tled it for myself, is for the per­sona who writes this blog: a per­sona not unlike the me who posts on Face­book, but that dis­tinc­tion in my own head is suf­fi­cient for me to find work­ing in both ser­vices mean­ing­ful and prac­ti­ca­ble. In prac­tice the line has not been hard and fast yet, but it is a process, and I con­tin­ue to patient­ly exper­i­ment with how I want to make my 140-char­ac­ters mat­ter, to me and to any­one who might read them.

Tumblr

I can’t real­ly say if I like Tum­blr yet or not. I would say I like the idea of Tum­blr, except I am actu­al­ly not sure what the idea of Tum­blr is. It feels real­ly cool, I read that it may be the next hot thing, many media com­pa­nies are start­ing to dab­ble in it, so I would love to make use of it in my own shame­less self-pro­mo­tion. Yet I just don’t get it: as with each of these ser­vices, there is def­i­nite­ly some­thing to get, and that some­thing con­tin­ues to evade me here. But, like I did with Twit­ter, I am game to hang out in Tum­blr and splash around like a drunk­en fish for a while, to see if this new pond is in any way a place for me.

Academia.edu

This is a new one for me, but I real­ly like it so far. It hasn’t been up and run­ning that long, and so the con­nec­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties are still rel­a­tive­ly scant. I was the first per­son – fac­ul­ty or stu­dent – rep­re­sen­ta­tive of my cur­rent grad school depart­ment, and there are still only about a score of peo­ple on the site with my area as a research inter­est. But if you are involved in acad­e­mia or oth­er research in any way, I encour­age to give it a go. This could be a very vibrant and help­ful vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty, and if it gains suf­fi­cient trac­tion, I believe I will ulti­mate­ly find it far more valu­able than LinkedIn.

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Yes, I enjoy being (or feel­ing) con­nect­ed. Prob­a­bly the biggest rea­son I left the path to the priest­hood was that I saw clear­ly that it was not good for me to be alone. At a cer­tain stage all this becomes a chore, though, a task, an obses­sion that pulls on me at every hour of the day to check in, to update, to inter­act. I will not attempt to argue this is not prob­lem­at­ic. It is extreme­ly wor­ri­some to me, in fact, and I try to be extra con­scious of this and of any effect it may begin to have on my life at home with my fam­i­ly, who are not anoth­er of my con­nec­tions to main­tain: they are my real life.

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