Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start...
A long time ago I worked in technology. I know, me, the technophobic Luddite. But back then it was exciting, rather than overwhelming and was also the place where the money was.
I was tired of the fun but poverty-stricken jobs of "back up script writer for TV show/talent wrangler/gofer/PR and copywriter/fan mail answerer/WTFever they needed me to do" and "poorly paid and much-abused political writing hack." Not to mention the thrilling "bill researcher and translator for rich people worried about what politicians were doing with their money" and the can't beat it "no job whatsoever despite college degree and extensive efforts ACK ACK ACK!!" jobs (or lack thereof).
Although I gained extensive experience and talents in forging (whether it be handwriting or way someone else talks), my bank account sobbed its sad story to me every day, and so, the next time the job agent called me, I signed up for Well Paid Technical Writer.
Engineers are generally so overjoyed to find someone who knows their language---always approach with food, no more than a slight smile, and act interested in code for at least half an hour before getting to the real purpose of your visit---that they will cling ferociously to the writer who can magically translate what they mean into words the Revered Users will understand. Infuse your interactions with a little glowing-eyed admiration and they will be yours forever. (You hear the joking tone, right?)
And friends, I could do this for hardware, software, web work...you name it. None of it was beyond my ken or dentistry (because let's be honest: sometimes getting an explanation from an engineer who is sure it is patently obvious is worse than pulling teeth).
It is to my credit that I was a very versatile and successful technical writer who was generally well-liked. But as my dissatisfaction with my work grew---coincidentally along with the expansion of technology---my disconnect with my coworkers widened as well.
Then the worm turned, as worms are wont to do...
"But what's the point of this tool?" my conscience demanded, my mind certain we were surfing a technological bubble for no purpose other than to create one more toy without thought to any raison d'etre beyond scoring the big one for the creator.
The developers seemed invested in technology for technology's sake. They gave no apparent pause to consider the effect---or IMPACT as people are so fond of saying now---or potential cultural consequence of what they developed.
"When you talk about maximum efficiency output...does that number right there...could it be indicating the number of people whose jobs will be displaced by this tool?" I asked. The crowd was annoyed not by my question---which it considered moot and pointless---but by my interruption to their ecstatic flow of possibilities.
"Just because something can be doesn't mean it should be," I tried to point out.
I began biting the very hand that fed me.
I questioned the reason, the point, and the need. I became concerned about what I felt was a blind rush forward...a mass leaping without looking. After a rather dreadful job, weary of a culture I no longer believed in; exhausted from frequent and rapid turnovers of companies, names, bosses, mission statements; tired of jetting to other cities to coordinate and "cohese" (yes, based on word cohesive. Don't ask.) with newly acquired or newly acquiring coworkers; constant meetings to consolidate style standards to the point we never actually implemented them, at least not before next takeover; and endless conferences to Keep Up...I leapt off.
"That's it," I said, "I'm finished. It's time for a return to my original dream, and the pursuit of actual writing and publishing...putting out things that have meaning, purpose, and enrich lives, rather than simply make them more efficient."
I find that blogging can meet this goal, too.
So then, where do these new and ever evolving social media tools fit in? Are they expedient or extraordinary?
The conversation takes a sudden, yet arguably marginally well-hooked, turn towards the main point...
After my Twitter Do or Don't post, I signed up with Twitter and tried it out. How have I found it?
I have found it.
Yes, that's all.
I have ample random thoughts all day from my children. My few ventures in inquiries---attempts to get answers to questions or gather information---were singularly unsuccessful.
It served no necessary purpose.
It might be the medium. What, after all, is the difference between the status in Facebook versus the brief commentaries in Twitter? Not much.
It is a nice way to be chummy with friends-at-a-distance. And that's okay.
It was a personal thing, interacting with people I already liked so of course I'd enjoy whatever they posted at Twitter. And I did.
But are these social media and networks a blind rush forward, much art, little matter, and a potentially big fall?
I think so. All of the obvious, much discussed ethical issues aside (safety, abuse, criminal activity, etc.), I am concerned about this loose use of the term "friend" and "follower." We have enough of a struggle to understand and discern our relationships with others.
I'm not sure how many years it took me to grasp the varying levels of friendships. Many. I will probably work at it longer, still.
* people I know,
* people I trust,
* people who are probably nice but with whom I haven't much rapport but need to get along with due to proximity,
* people I shouldn't trust even though they might be okay simply because I don't know them well enough,
* people I used to know,
* and, of course, friends.
I believe these nuances as even more subtle in social media than they are in real life.
Add to that this concept of "spread this message/application/cyber gift" and "collect as many 'friends' as you can to enhance your 'popularity' and have the biggest number next to your friend category" pressures and social media can become worse than high school. (Not to mention some of the troubling ways high schoolers use it.)
Has the expression changed from "he who dies with the most toys wins" to "he who dies with the largest number of social media 'friends' or 'followers' wins?"
It takes a lot of time to marginally stay in touch with a small percentage of my online contacts, without as much regularity as I'd like sometimes. I can't imagine the time investment for people with 10 times as many contacts as I have. And consider...that's often a small number! What is sacrificed to maintain these huge lists of online contacts?
Stepping up even another level, many of these people are building these lists without full and honest disclosure.
The idea of social media as marketing tool appears to be to initially build a trust through a personal contact. The next step, if you are doing this for business reasons, is to begin slowly but surely manipulating the relationship until it is close enough that when you begin fishing for your business, the contact bites.
In my opinion, that bites. The big one.
A flashback sort of metaphor demonstrates how one can use and be used within social media...
As a young woman, I took a job in Atlanta. God love you people who live there. It's beautiful and I'm sure wonderful in many ways, but I found it hot (duh) and humid (duh) and culturally perplexing. Everybody was so roundabout, and slightly clannish. I found myself often vaguely suspicious of the friendliness, which I suspected masked a different purpose.
My last boyfriend now an ex and my best friend in New York, I was lonely. So when a nice young man I worked with invited me to lunch, I said yes. When he asked me to dinner, I ran out and bought a great dress with the biggest shoulder pads I could find (it was 1990, cut slack). I didn't feel a strong connection but he was nice, and it was a good diversion from my boring trek to and from work and home. That doesn't mean I didn't feel horribly betrayed when, after a post-date conversation---people still spoke in person then, cell phones and texting not yet the primary means of communicating---he broached the topic of my father.
I wonder if he agonized at all about how to bring it up. He certainly slipped into my good graces smoothly. He disarmed my defenses and natural suspicion by appearing very genuine, sincere and nice.
He may even have actually liked me, may even have actually enjoyed the time we spent together, although he kept that rather short before finally getting to the True Purpose of our acquaintance: his career aspirations.
He wanted to get somewhere in a competitive market and I was a seemingly easy path to my father, who could get him there. Or so he thought.
"...so do you think you could set it up so I could meet your father? Talk to him about that job opening in his group?" he asked me as we sat across from one another at a round break table outside.
"You...you want to meet with my father? That's what you want?" I asked dumbly, my pride breaking in half, my ego crumbling, "That's why you asked me out? To get in?"
He paused, "That's not the only reason, but yes, I would like to meet your dad."
He seemed so careless about it. Untroubled.
"Well," I said, angrily, "You blew it. I am not anyone's means to any end."
I stormed away and refused to ever speak to him again. I was young and fiery, but not necessarily wrong.
That's social media---or social media as it is in many cases.
So why build in one more layer of confusion, distraction, and frustration? Does social media have a positive purpose?
Despite the possible abuse and harm, as my personal example demonstrates, I don't think we ought to dismiss, disband, or begin imposing any rules on social media.
It does have a positive role. As I mentioned, it's a good way to stay in touch with distant friends, quickly and often humorously. I'm sure there is potential beyond what I found---other people certainly think so. Even if I don't find it particularly necessary, others do and that makes it a useful tool.
I believe that ultimately people will prevail in mastering this tool as something beneficial and positive for themselves, which will, on the whole, manage it to be something positive.
How? Through ethical implementation and application and social media mores.
What I think we need to do with ethics and mores and social media...
If you think of humans and all we do as possible bucking broncos, then mores are the hours of training in the circle and are the gentle hands holding our reins. They guide us into well-mannered behavior so that we may all share the same riding path (in general, exceptions aside).
When we create a new social dynamic, eventually our commonly held ideas of right and wrong figure out a way to fill in the blank spaces, and mores for that space are created.
The same will happen for social media. I believe it is already happening.
Regardless, we need to adopt a wise attitude about using it. We need to be cautious, and, as in all things, mindful.
As I did with my Atlanta coworker, I think too many of us want to believe, and we too easily suspend our disbelief. Then we are caught up or caught unaware or are left confused and bewildered, possibly betrayed or hurt.
Even with less drama in the outcome, I think we all need to carefully consider how we use and how we are used within social media. Employ the technology with your own ethics and mores in mind---ask whether you need it, whether it enriches your life or fulfills your goals. Consider the actions you take, how the affect you and your goals, and also how they might affect others.
As is typical since the technological era began, our technology is well ahead of our ability to manage our tools in a safe and healthy way in many cases. But I believe that we will, as we have in our day-to-day life, intelligently sort okay from not okay in social media. Positive effects will reward okay and negative consequences will punish not okay.
So...caveat attemptor! And enjoy!
What do you think?
Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert
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