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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