My friend recently expressed concern over an acquaintance recovering from a divorce. Amidst her life-altering event, she began living life more openly on Facebook. Perhaps desperate for intimacy and to "get it all out", she began sharing excessive levels of unfiltered and impulsive thoughts and behaviors with her Facebook friends. The therapeutic benefits of openness with her social network eventually transitioned into a self-fulfilling cycle of free association. Her state was at once shocking, embarrassing, harmful and seemingly uncontrollable. As with any addiction, this state of self-destructive narcissism became the norm. Intervention would appear mandatory.
Importantly, this is not a Facebook issue, and I am not picking on Facebook. I greatly admire Facebook. In my case above, Facebook happened to be the venue in which personal problems played out, and others witnessed and interacted with them. There will always be people with psychological or life challenges, and they will live them out in any number of venues. But with more than 500 million users today, rapid user growth, and claim to one out of four Web page views in the U.S. alone, Facebook is where living in public — including self-destructive cases — is playing out more than any other place.
This made me think of a few big ideas to keep in mind as social technologies continue to immerse our culture — and make a life in public more accessible.
Everyone Is A Luddite
When it comes to social networks and digital expression, everyone is a luddite. Even today's so-called experts and net natives are students at best; they just have the benefit (or baggage) of slightly more experience. Everyone is experimenting and trying to figure out social networking and digital identity management, and the only certainty is that social and identity technologies continue to develop rapidly.
Perhaps the most interesting and meaningful segmentation of modern societies when it comes to social network adoption is generation, because of the vastly different expectations of privacy, publicness, connectivity and intimacy.
Norms Lag Technology, and Laws Lag Norms
Social technologies continue to evolve rapidly. Social networks became what they are today not only because of the Internet, but because of advances in computing power and the emergence of powerful mobile devices that truly enable social network immersion. But what will happen to social networking when the computing power that now fits in your pocket reduces in size to that of a blood cell? The answer to that question may be decades off, but probably within my lifetime.
But even with today's technology, social norms are growing with tension as segments of our population continue to splinter off at different rates to embrace social networking. Even as social norms inevitably evolve and catch up with technology, the laws and precedents by which our societies function lag by years and often decades. For worse, the laws concerning the possession and distribution of child pornography didn't anticipate "sexting" among naive teenagers. For better, neither did the governments of Iran, Egypt and Tunisia.
Better Social Networking Filters and Management Tools Are Desperately Needed
Facebook is a different place today versus four years ago, when I first started using it. Early on, I had few friends, and most of them were early social networking adopters. Today, I have nearly a thousand friends, sourced from my home life, work life, schools and universities, and a bunch of other random places. Within the first year, the volume of social signals from the Facebook stream alone became unmanageable. Then there's Twitter and LinkedIn, where I have a few thousand additional connections. There's also my professional and personal email, the root of all social networks and online identity. Managing multiple networks is complex.
I need intelligent filters to let the more important and valuable social signals reach me, and management tools to optimize, promote and protect the various layers of my online presence that I want to transmit out. The solution must be simple and require minimal active management.
Patience, Prudence and Curiosity
Because everyone is a luddite…Because norms lag technology, and laws lag norms…And because better social networking filters and management tools are desperately needed….
There will be a lot of tension, a lot of answers to figure out, and a lot of stumbling along the way. Therefore, it is important to proceed with prudence, and practice patience with one another.
It also is important to approach publicness with perspective. On one hand, opening your life to extensive publicness will invite all sorts of perspective. On the other, I've seen social networking openness distort sense of self. Can you imagine people carefully calculating their lives to emit specific social networking signals that prompt desirable response? I suppose humans inherently do that, as we are social creatures. But what if those responses — for example, the ones in your Facebook stream — assume exorbitant influence over your esteem and self worth? How might you change your life to sustain them? I've seen more of this recently, and think it's something to watch out for.
If my writings above seem negative or cautionary, that is not my intention. I embrace social technologies, and believe there's a lot to gain with tools that empower us to manage our connections and publicness. To evolve and benefit, we must experiment and maintain curiosity.
Side Note: We Live In Public, The Movie
If you want to see the extreme of living in public, then go see We Live In Public. It's a documentary film about Josh Harris, an Internet visionary who embarked on several life-changing, manipulative and sometimes perverted experiments that explored privacy, publicness, connectivity and intimacy. While extreme, his experiments were a startling window into the future. Considering how fast our standards of publicness are evolving, his vision may not be that far off.
What are your thoughts on social networking and living in public? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Image: Map of Max Kalehoff's LinkedIn Network