Digital Connections: Reality, Addiction, or Something Else?

Over the last couple of days, I’ve spontaneously bumped into several conversations about “being online.” People are wondering, as they have since online was a thing, whether being online is a good thing or a bad thing. Is there such a thing as being online too much? What do we miss when we’re not online? What do we miss when we are? I’m writing this in bed, and both me and Mr. Geeky are online, as we often are, many hours of the day. Our kids are also online many hours of the day. We think about these things a lot. I don’t have any easy answers.

My first encounter this week was with an older post by Dean Shareski that was retweeted. Just the way I found it should tell you something. ūüôā Dean argued that there is no difference between being online and offline in terms of connecting with people. I mostly feel the same way, but as I said in a comment there, I think the whole thing is complicated. There is a slight difference in connecting online and offline. Right now, I think that connecting online in a deep way takes a lot more effort than face-to-face. In a short amount of time in a face-to-face conversation, you can get facial expressions, tone of voice, body language that you just can’t get in an online conversation (although hangouts and skype do come close, but I have very few of those). To capture that same depth online requires more than 140 characters and usually more back and forth. In fact, I would argue that in the days of just blogs (no FB, no Twitter), in depth was easier than it is today. We really did do what I’m doing right now–connecting blog posts together via another blog post–more often. Nowadays, we just tweet it. I do it too. I don’t take the time to comment on the article I tweeted. It’s worth reading the comments on Dean’s post. It is representative of the way a deep conversation/connection can happen online. I’d argue, however, that those are rarer than they should be.

My next encounter was with Rob Cottingham’s comic, which I’ve loved since I first found out about it through Northern Voice 6 years ago (where I presented a video and conversation about this very issue). He, too, thinks this idea that the online world doesn’t matter or isn’t real is a silly one.

Put the online world‚Äôs role in your life into perspective ‚ÄĒ not just where it distracts you from what matters, but where it connects you to it.

And that is where I think most people miss the point. It’s also not what everyone is doing online. Ever since I ventured online, I was doing so to find connections to people. I felt isolated, alone misunderstood, but through my online connections, I found meaning and connection, and eventually, a new career. But many people are online not to connect in a meaningful way but to promote, to stroke their ego, to get the shallow satisfaction of having thousands of “friends”. And these people bother me and they are bringing along with them a way of looking at the online world as a shallow place. Our students seem to start there, in the shallow end. In part, that’s about cognitive development. They’re all about the ego well into their young adulthood. But some will make meaningful connections and we, as educators, can help them do that.

My final encounter was a link from Rob’s site about a 25 day vacation from being online. Thurston sounds like someone who needed a break, who had lost that sense of balance between interacting offline and online, feeling the need to tweet, check in, or post to Facebook every moment of his life. In fact, if I’d seen Thurston online, I dare say I’d have categorized him as one of those people using online spaces just for promotion and not for real connection. And perhaps that’s why he burned out and needed the break. Twice in my life I’ve gotten to that point. The first is documented here. Here’s what I said then:

I just need to think about why I began blogging in the first place and what I really want to be writing here and how it fits into my life. I think in many ways, blogging has been a substitute for the lack of support and recognition I feel in other aspects of my life. That’s not to say that I think blogging is to blame for the imbalance I feel right now. It’s not. It’s just that what I do here has become something different from what I want it to be. . . . The connections I made here are real. I enjoyed reading about other people’s lives and sharing in births and deaths, tenure and job searches, struggles with children and parents. It felt like a community here, a virtual neighborhood where we did more than just wave at each other across the street.

That was one of the worst times in my life, and for whatever good I got out of having an online community, it could not support me enough to help me through my difficulties. There was a clear qualitative difference between the people I was connecting to there and the people around me physically. For a time, I gave the online community more of me and that broke the relationships I had with those around me. The damage from that, in fact, still lingers. I don’t blame the Internet for it. It was just what I happened to turn to.

So what am I trying to say? I will say that I value my connections online. I value that I can write here and people read it and comment and send me email. I value that other people write things that make me think, cry, laugh, etc. I value my connections on Twitter and that we can share resources, have brief chats and help each other there. But when I’m at dinner or in a meeting or sitting with friends talking, I don’t check my twitter feed or my email or my blog. When I go for a walk around town, my phone stays in my pocket except for the occasional photo. Being online is a huge part of my life and part of my work. But it can’t be everything. Here’s how Thurston put it:

I am still a creature of my technological time. I love my devices and services, and I love being connected to the global hive mind. I am neither a Luddite nor a hermit, but I am more aware of the price we pay: lack of depth, reduced accuracy, lower quality, impatience, selfishness, and mental exhaustion, to name but a few. In choosing to digitally enhance, hyperconnect, and constantly share our lives, we risk not living them. We have collectively colluded to take this journey, but we’ve done so inches at a time, not realizing that we have traveled leagues in the process.

We’re still figuring this stuff, individually and as a society. There’s a lot more thinking to do, a lot more connecting dots, wondering, critiquing. These are interesting times.

Could you live without the Internet?

I’m at a conference and my accommodations have no Internet and no tv. ¬†In fact, there’s only one outlet. ¬†When I’m on vacation, I expect to be disconnected, but this is a work-related trip. ¬†I expect not only to be able to do work things, but also check in with family and friends via the Internet. ¬†I felt a little antsy, I must admit. ¬†Even most of my reading material is on either my computer or my Nook, and I couldn’t access either without the Internet. ¬†Luckily, I’d brought some non-digital material to read. ¬†But, as I drifted off to sleep, I wondered what it might be like to forgo the Internet for a while. ¬†I’m not sure I could do it. ¬†I could give up aspects of the Internet–Twitter, Facebook, even WoW, I could live without. ¬†But I download movies, books, read the news, even watch tv with the help of the Internet.

But maybe I should think more about how I use the Internet. ¬†I tend to do so reflexively as its been part of my work now for about 15 years. ¬†Here’s an example. ¬†I’ve hopped on the Google+ bandwagon, and when I look at it, I don’t think it’s¬†revolutionizing my social network. ¬†It’s still a stream of random information from *mostly* random strangers. ¬†And most of that is information I don’t really need. ¬†One could argue I might need the connections to people, but I’m not sure that’s even true. ¬†I’m not trying to sell something or promote myself, though I grant that my school actually likes the publicity, so there’s that. ¬†There are people out there I want to stay connected to–former students, former classmates, colleagues in my field. ¬†But do I need three different places to keep up with them?

I know this line of thinking is old hat, even for me. ¬†But I think this is connected somewhat to my lamentations about summer. ¬†It’s all too easy to spend hours on end on the Internet, whether it’s playing a game, watching funny videos, or reading blogs. ¬†There’s nothing wrong, of course, with leisure, with just goofing around. ¬†But I think I”m starting to agree with some critics who suggest that the Internet weakens our ties, and is generally shallow. ¬†It doesn’t have to be, but it lends itself to being that way. ¬†Witness the shift from blogs to Facebook and Twitter. ¬†Where once people used to post a link and comment on it, now they just post it to Twitter, often without adding anything to it. ¬† That can be seen as more efficient. ¬†After all, who needs commentary from random people. ¬†But that’s what I found interesting, actually. ¬†What do “real” people think about this issue? ¬†Much of that is gone.

Perhaps the real question is, what do we do with the Internet now?  Now that Twitter (and now Google+) are the media of choice.  Now that passive forms of entertainment like tv and movies have migrated from a box that sits in the living room to any box with an Internet connection.  And now that our data (via sites like Facebook) is out there for any marketer, government agent, or a nefarious person to get to.  While some of us have been thinking about this all along, most people have rushed headlong into putting everything out there, into connecting without thinking about what that means, into just getting lost in wires.

The Facebook Dilemma

It’s all over the interwebs that Facebook’s latest changes to privacy setting is evil. ¬†Plenty of famous people have left FB. ¬†Plenty of people I know have left Facebook.

I’m on the fence. ¬†My kids are on Facebook and for my teenager, especially, it’s a nice way to see what he’s up to. ¬†It serves as a conversation starter. ¬†And you know, I like to keep an eye on them in case trouble arises. ¬†Also, my dad’s friends are all there and they let me know how he’s doing, also important to me. ¬†And then there’s all the old friends from elementary school, high school, college, whom I wouldn’t know anything about if it weren’t for Facebook.

But, I’m not a fan of the how difficult it is to set privacy settings nor am I a huge fan of having my information used for advertising purposes. ¬†But, I already do that in other ways–credit cards, grocery store cards (at least FB doesn’t know what food I eat (yet)). ¬†And while I may feel a bit squeamish about that, it’s not like I didn’t know. ¬†I mean, I get the service for free. ¬†They have to make money, so naturally, it’s all about the ads.

Right now, I have everything set to “friends only” though honestly, I’m not entirely sure about that. ¬†That’s what it says, but who knows. ¬†Which is part of the problem, yes? ¬†And then there’s the fact that my “friends” on Facebook run the gamut from people in my field I’ve met briefly to people I see every day to family to former students. ¬†Not all of those people need to know everything about me. ¬†Which is why I don’t post much there. ¬†I could make things more granular, but it’s a hell of a lot of work. ¬†I’d have to group my friends and then go through each of five or six different privacy areas and set what each group gets to see. ¬†Also, I have tried to change my network, but it’s so school based still, I have to tell it what year I am. ¬†Really? ¬†I can’t just be a resident of the Philadelphia area? ¬†I have to have gone to school there. ¬†See, I don’t want to be in my high school or college or even graduate school network. ¬†I don’t live near those people. ¬†I ¬†have little in common with them except that we attended school together 20 years ago. ¬†And every network I’ve tried to join requires a college email. ¬†Hello, we didn’t even have email back then. ¬†Either that or I didn’t go to school around here, but I live here. ¬†Hello?

The people who read my blog and follow me on Twitter are a whole different group of people, so sticking with just those means I lose connections to people who are just on Facebook. ¬†So it’s a dilemma. ¬†And I haven’t decided what to do yet. ¬†I feel like I need/want to be there for lots of reasons, good reasons, but I also feel that their business practices are problematic. ¬†So I’ll keep thinking about it for now, see what the fallout really is, and decide what to do later. ¬†I feel very Scarlet O’Hara about the whole thing.

Social Networking Tips

Nancy White commented on my Parenting in the Online World post that she wanted to know more about what to do and not do on sites like Facebook.¬† I had mentioned that parents should not comment publicly on their kids’ wall posts and that is a key tip, but let me lay out a little more detail.¬† Let’s start with some more on Facebook.

First, the wall.¬† The wall is generally public, though people can control who sees it.¬† But it’s best to simply assume that everyone can see it.¬† Think of it as being in a coffee shop.¬† Would you criticize something your kid said or did loud enough for the whole shop to hear? I hope the answer is no, though I have unfortunately witnessed such incidents.¬† So that’s one thing.

Also, don’t mention personal things like bathing habits, underwear size, girlfriends or boyfriends, parties, etc.¬† The bathing and personal habits might be obvious.¬† But you aren’t always privvy to the social life of your teen and you never know if you say “hey, are you going to john’s house?” on her wall that you might have created a bad social situation for your teen.¬† The same is true for your own postings.¬† It’s not friendly to say, going out to dinner with Susie and Sarah, knowing that you’re intentionally leaving out Martha.¬† Just be careful when posting about social engagements.¬† You might hurt someone’s feelings.

Be careful about publishing religious and political opinions.¬† I have my views posted in my profile, but I rarely post anything on Facebook about those opinions.¬† Facebook generally attracts a wider variety of people with a wider variety of opinions.¬† If you’re cultivating a network for professional reasons, you might lose people by posting staunch opinions about something.¬† I defriended someone who posted some really mean things after the health care bill passed.¬† Saying which side one is on is probably not a huge deal, but spouting off personal attacks can make you look unprofessional.

Don’t post messages to the wall that would be more appropriate in an email or personal message.¬† Many of these may fall into the categories above.¬† Before posting, consider whether you want the whole world reading what you’ve written.

This should be obvious, but don’t post about your drunken or sexual escapades.¬† Grownups may not need this, but teens and college students might.

For a humorous take on Facebook faux pas’s, check out Failbook.

Ok, now for some more positive things.

It’s quite alright to post some personal things, noting what you’re doing, what music you’re listening to, etc.¬† Just consider how others might view it.¬† Keep it simple and you’re usually going to be okay.

Do post links that are interesting to you, especially ones related to your work.¬† I actually have Twitter and Facebook connected, so that what I post to Twitter makes it to Facebook.¬† Since much of what I post to Twitter are links to articles, that ends up in Facebook.¬† Think of it as providing a service, especially if many of your friends are in your field.¬† You’re filtering for them, providing them the things that you think are important.

Post links to your blog posts if that’s an important part of your professional life.¬† Again, I installed a plugin that automatically sends my posts to Twitter, which then sends it to Facebook.

Make connections to people.¬† I have to admit that this is problematic in Facebook.¬† It’s easy enough to connect with high school, college, even graduate school friends, but reaching out to random people is more difficult.¬† It’s much easier to do in Twitter or LinkedIn.¬† But, you might connect with them in another venue first and then find them on Facebook.¬† And they may not friend you.¬† Maybe Facebook for them is a purely personal venue and they leave their professional lives on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Likewise, tap into your connections when you need to.¬† Are you looking for a job?¬† See which of your friends are in your field or in your area and send them a note (do not post on their wall!) that you’re looking and ask if they know of anything.¬† Obviously, this can be done in other venues, like LinkedIn and Twitter.

Also, try your best to maintain those connections even if you don’t need them now.¬† Make comments on people’s posts, respond to questions via Twitter or Facebook that you know something about.¬† You never know when you might need a connection or when they might need you.¬† It’s best, too, to do this naturally.¬† Don’t go too much out of your way or you might look desperate.¬† Instead, just keep an eye on your feed and comment when you have time and the mood strikes.¬† But make time to do it and it will pay off.

Keep your profile professional.  Have a good picture.  List contact information and websites.  List employment and education.  In a way, this is like a shortened resume.

Consider starting a group or a page.¬† This can raise your profile.¬† You can create a page for your business or non-profit or you can join groups related to your field.¬† Again, be careful about what you join.¬† These may show up on your wall or profile and you probably don’t want people to know that you’ve joined the neo-Nazi group or a sex group.¬† ūüôā

Okay, on to some other sites. Many of the same rules apply, but keep in mind that each site has its own vibe.  Tread carefully until you get the feel for it.

LinkedIn. This is a purely professional site.  Keep your information up to date.  It serves as a resume.

Link your presentations (if you do this kind of thing) using SlideShare.

Search for jobs on the site if you’re looking.

Connect with people.¬† Since this is what the site is for, if you see someone whom you think could advance your career and that person is connected to a friend, get introduced and connected.¬† It’s like getting introduced at a conference or cocktail party, just virtually.¬† On the homepage, you’ll often see a list of “people you may know.” Take advantage of this and add them to your network.

Get recommendations.  Ask former employers, co-workers, students, etc. to write recommendations for you.  These appear on your profile and can be a real added bonus.

Connect your blogs, Twitter feed, etc.  LinkedIn allows you to show your other sites on your profile.  If, like me, you use these for professional purposes, by all means, include them.

There’s also a question feature that may be useful to you.¬† People post questions about things in their field.¬† Answering these well can get you a “best answer” star, which will show your expertise in a particular area.

Twitter.

Twitter is just status updates, but you can make those updates count and you can learn a lot from other people’s updates.

Pick people to follow.¬† Search on Twitter’s site for people in your field or check out the people someone you know and respect follows and follow them.¬† If you pick well, you can end up with great information as people post news and articles that can keep you up to date in your field.

Post questions that you need answers to.  Poll the twitterverse.  This can be a great way to connect to people as well as get information.

Like Facebook, be wary of the personal update.¬† Everyone posts some, “OMG, I ‘m busy!” or “I’m headed to the ballgame” posts, but if you’re using Twitter professionally, keep these minimal.

Retweet things that are interesting.¬† Twitter allows you to retweet someone else’s post, giving them credit.¬† This can get you a new connection.

As mentioned above, post your own blog posts.¬† Be careful about this if you’re a prolific blogger as people can get annoyed if all you’re posting is your own stuff.

One final word of advice about any of these sites.¬† Turn them off when you need to focus.¬† When I’m writing, I turn off Twhirl and close Facebook and other web pages that might be distracting.¬† These sites can be a time suck, so be aware of how much time you’re spending.¬† While it can be productive, it can easily take you away from what’s important.¬† Constantly re-evaluate.

I’m sure others have advice or other sites to include.¬† Let me know in the comments!

Facebook vs. Twitter

I’ve been on Facebook more over the last two weeks than I’ve been on Twitter. ¬†They are, of course very different applications in many ways, but they have similar features, most notably, the status update, which is almost all Twitter really is while Facebook sports many other features. ¬†I have almost completely different friends on Facebook than I do on Twitter. ¬†I’ve had a Facebook account since 2004 and back then, I had a handful of friends from the tech and new media fields. ¬†We were all just taking FB for a test drive, kicking the tires, seeing what’s up. ¬†I started a Twitter account in 2007 and really started using it heavily during a conference in early 2007 as a backchannel. ¬†Since the conference was a techie oriented one, most of my friends were also techies in the education field. ¬†In fact, I can clearly delineate my friends on Twitter among higher education folks, K-12 folks, and then a few random people thrown in for good measure–moms, news and job sources, pure technology folks. ¬†I use Twitter to find information from people who have their finger on the pulse of different areas. ¬†People point to articles, new applications, or make quick suggestions. ¬†And often, I do the same.

Facebook, on the other hand, contains almost exclusively what I’d call “past friends.” ¬†These are people I befriended in high school, college, and grad school or worked with at one time or another. ¬†For good measure, I’m friends with a few old blogger friends, my mom and dad, my kids, a couple of cousins, and friends of my parents. ¬†It’s a broader net, for sure, as there aren’t the same interests tying us together. ¬†And yes, I spend much of my time there managing my virtual enterprises, but I also take note of what my old friends have to say, and I’m starting to feel somewhat reconnected to some of the ones that post most often. ¬†For the most part, my friends in Facebook are not particularly technologically savvy as far as I can tell, or, at the very least, don’t care that much about technical stuff. ¬†It’s just the opposite for my Twitter friends. ¬†Even the educators are very tech savvy and very interested in technology, especially the ways it’s changing education.

Both tools make it fairly easy to keep up with lots of people at once. ¬†At a glance, I can see what conferences people are attending, what they’re reading, what they’re spending time on (grading and cleaning are popular). ¬†But each has its own vibe. ¬†Facebook is slower paced and more personal, while Twitter is fast and more about people’s professional lives. In Facebook, I tend to find out about people’s marriages, deaths, children’s illnesses while in Twitter, I find out when books are published, meetings go bad, or other professional events. ¬†I wouldn’t want to completely combine them and I think many of my FB friends wouldn’t want to migrate to Twitter and vice versa. ¬†So, I live in two separate worlds, hopping back and forth depending on what mood I’m in. ¬†I think the variety is good for me.

Parents knowledge of kids’ social lives

Social computingImage by lorda via Flickr

The New York Times has this brief article on how parents don’t really know how often their teens are checking into social networking sites. My first thought was, duh. Even tech savvy me who sits next to my kids while their on the computer probably doesn’t know everything. And I don’t think I should know *everything*. My parents didn’t know everything. Sometimes, when they dropped me off at the mall, I went somewhere else. Sometimes, when I said I was at Jennifer’s house, I was really somewhere else. Not behavior I’m proud of, but fairly typical. And it’s why my kids are not allowed out of the house. ūüôā Not really, but I certainly will be checking in with parents, etc. when my kids go out.

I went digging for the original research (can I say I hate it when people don’t link to that stuff), and I couldn’t find it exactly. The web site for Common Sense Media, the group responsible for collating such research, seems like an interesting place. They seem to have the right idea about approaching media, teaching kids to be critical of the media they consume, and helping parents learn what’s going on in their kids lives. I’ve actually forwarded the link to some local educators. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about such sites. I feel like I work really hard to keep up with what my kids are doing, and obviously, my field keeps me abreast of the latest trends. But, I do know there are parents out there, who are just oblivious to a lot of the technology their kids are using. They either come down on the “no way am I letting my kid have a cell phone” side, or the “I have no idea what this stuff is, but surely it can’t be bad.” The hard part is that even with a lot of information, it’s hard to figure out how to help your kids manage their social lives, whether they’re mediated by technology or not. I suppose a site like this helps, but I still think parents need to use that information and be critical of it. New reports come out all the time, for example, about the effects of video games and other media on kids. I worry that parents sometimes rely on these kinds of places to tell them what to do. And no site, no matter how good, can sort out all the complexities of parenting in the digital age.

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The Problem with Facebook

I agree with Alex Golub’s stance in his IHE piece on Facebook. As he argues, the lack of granularity in friend settings creates a situation where you either cloister yourself or you don’t. It’s a very different world than the one we actually live in, where you have people that you work with and would go out to dinner with and people that you work with but wouldn’t. In other words, Facebook forces you to draw clear lines when there aren’t any. I’ve had a Facebook account since 2004, and I’ve had this blog that long and I twitter and generally put myself out there all the time, so I’m not squeamish about having a public persona. I think most people have gotten past fear of Facebook, and thanks to some highly publicized incidents, most students have figured out that posting risque pictures is a bad for future job prospects. As Facebook goes more and more mainstream, however, things are getting kind of weird.

For example, most of my high school classmates have now found me on Facebook. The first person to find me a couple of years ago was my best friend (we’d already found each other’s blogs), and that was cool. It was a great way to stay in touch and it faciliated the ability for us to visit each other. But then the peripheral friends started friending me and I wasn’t sure what to do about that. So I friended them and that was okay, but now all my current real friends are mixed in with former students, former classmates from high school, college and grad school and it’s getting pretty messy. I unsuccessfully tried to use Facebook to arrange a gathering while I was in my home town over the holidays, and that failed miserably (I totally felt like I was in high school again), not because of Facebook, per se, but now I’m wondering why I have those people in my friend list anyway if I can’t even contact them to have lunch because I’m not entirely sure I want them to know about my day-to-day activities. And likely vice versa.

Over the weekend, I friended the mom of one of my daughter’s friends. This, too, strikes me as odd. I actually wrote her a note when I friended her just to say that I was surprised to find another mom on FB. I did it mainly to keep in touch with the mom circuit. She works full time, but also seems involved in a lot of local mom-related activities.

So, I think Facebook makes me feel like George Costanza–my worlds collide.

Lost in MySpace

Last night, the kids and I watched our usual roundup of Sunday night tv: King of the Hill, Simpsons, Family Guy. We started with this clever episode of King of the Hill on MySpace. I thought it captured the pros and cons of social networking quite well. A couple of my favorite moments:

Donna: You just don’t get my generation!
Hank: Donna, you’re my age.

Hank (typing in his blog): Donna is an idiot. Post.
Donna: I’m sure my 4000 friends will find that very interesting.
Hank: Is that supposed to scare me. Are your 4000 friends gonna come through the screen and get me.
Other worker: The people are not really in the computer, Hank.

Unintended Consequences

Today’s post is a presentation I’m giving in just an hour and a half about social networking. I haven’t added all the cites yet, but this will update automatically. Enjoy!

Update: Here is a list of the sources for most of this material. All of these are interesting and present a variety of views about issues surrounding social networking sites–our fear of them, our unexamined embrace of them, their commercialization, and the good things they bring us.