Too much of a good thing

The world of social networking is an interesting thing indeed. It’s created dilemmas for us that we never thought we’d have to face. Like whether or not to friend your mom in Facebook. (I have–hi Mom!) My son found Facebook the other day–at my suggestion. He had been using Runescape as his primary means of communicating with friends–really. Because it’s a game, he had a tendency to get sucked in for hours, so I suggested he use Facebook instead. And yes, he friended me. I guess my parents worried about our spending too much time in front of the tv. I worry about other screens. As the summer approaches, I haven’t figured out exactly how to parcel out time appropriately. After all, I spend probably 8-10 hours online myself and only about half of that is “work”.

This week, the NY Times had an article about the effect of too much texting on teens. I actually think the article makes some good points as we’ve seen similar effects from too much computer use in general–sleep problems, grades falling, anxiety (usually caused by the first two). And, as the article points out, sometimes see restrictions on texting as hypocritical as their parents are attached to their Blackberries. There are simple measures, some of which the article mentions, that parents can take. We discovered, for example, that Geeky Boy was keeping a laptop in his room and playing into the wee hours of the night. Needless to say, we now have him check all electronic devices at the door before going to bed. We haven’t done this with the cell phone since a) he doesn’t have a text plan and b) he isn’t that attached to it yet. But it would be easy to have your kids hand over the phone before bed–and in fact, this could be the rule for the whole family. We’ve also put limits on computer time or had prerequisites for using the computer. For example, homework and certain chores must be done before logging in. That usually means that there’s only an hour left as it is.

I’ve tried to be very careful about my own use of various social networking tools and try to watch my own time online. Several years ago, I had gotten so involved in blogging that I became disconnected from my family. That is not a good thing and I don’t want that to happen to me agian or to my kids. I’m regularly thinking about balance in my own and my family’s lives. I find I start to feel sort of antsy anyway if I’ve spent too much time online.

In an online discussion about Tweeting too Much, meaning, both excessively and tweeting too much personal info, several experts weigh in. Most agree that social norms in regards to what’s “too personal” and how public information is in social networking sites are still being worked out. They all seem to agree that people need to achieve some kind of balance, both about what they’re willing to put out there and how much time (and when it’s appropriate to text, etc.) they spend posting to Twitter or Facebook. Not during birth, please. And maybe not during your kid’s soccer game either. Maybe we don’t need to hear about your relationship issues either. On the other hand, if you think your sharing that information with other people going through similar issues, okay. These things used to get worked out via email lists and discussion forums (and before that, in living rooms, coffee houses/bars or over the phone). So these are new platforms for communicating, not just what we know should be public, but everything.

To some extent, this whole blurring of the public/private line fuels some of our kids’ anxiety about texting and using Facebook. They know it’s public–even if they believe it’s just a small contingent of their friends. They still need to appear cool via these venues. And come on, isn’t that part of what all our blogging, twittering, and Facebooking is about? The web gurus out there need to look like they’re on top of every story, working on cool things, talking to cool people. If you feel like you’re not, anxiety central. I used to sort of buy into that, but not anymore. I think what our kids and all of us need to figure out is how these tools benefit us and how to walk away when they’re not. I leave twitter alone when I have work to do. I only read blogs first thing in the morning and over lunch. And I consider 95% of the blog reading and writing I do to be related to my work. I do sometimes play WoW in the middle of the day when I need a break and only then for an hour (at least I try to limit that). And I don’t have a job. I could spend all day doing stuff online. It’s true, at least for me, that the use of these tools and being online in general comes in waves. There are some times when I seem to be online 24/7 and then there may be days in a row where I am not online for more than an hour a day. Finding a balance will be difficult for most people, I think, as the lines between our professional and personal lives blur and as much of our work and social lives start to take place online.

Technology Generation Gap at Work

I bumped into this article yesterday and I went back to it today, reading through many of the comments. Self-identified boomers in the comments either say, heck yeah laptops in meetings suck or hey, I like social networking too. I’m not a boomer technically, but a Generation X person, supposedly. There may be some things one can say about how the generations distinguish themselves, but I don’t buy all of it. I’m more tech and social networking savvy than many of my students and I never took a laptop to a meeting. The people who did–boomers. I did, however, use Twitter and blogs, etc. at work for work.

Many of the commenters complain about the lack of attention Gen Y people seem to pay to people when they’re interacting. I’ve certainly seen that happen, but again, not with Gen Y people, but with older, glued-to-their-Blackberry people. And if someone interrupts a conversation to take a text message, I’d just say, okay, we’re done talking. I think if you think something is a breech of etiquette, you need to say so. That’s how people learn. If my phone rings during a conversation, I don’t answer it, unless there’s a reason to. For example, if one of my kids is supposed to call if they need a ride home, then I would explain to the person I’m talking to that I need to take it for this reason. Most people understand these kinds of interruptions. Just answering every call and every text is rude. Text messages can be answered later as can phone calls (the numbers are recorded and people can leave voice mail).

Same goes for meetings. If you’re running a meeting and someone’s on a laptop, I think you have a right to say, I need your full attention. Please close the laptop. This is harder to do in classes, where there are more students and sometimes you can say, well, it’s their loss if they aren’t paying attention. But, in smaller classes, you can often tell if a student is paying attention and if not, can ask that a laptop be put away (of course, I’ve written aobut this before).

On the other hand, some of the Gen X & Y commenters say those meetings are a waste of my time; that’s why I’m on my laptop. Certainly, there’s much work that used to be exclusively done in meetings that can now be online, but getting everyone on board with that is difficult. I worked in a technology department and it was difficult. Imagine what it’s like in a non tech place.

The other main comment is a question about whether the use of social media is productive. That’s hard to know. Someone did comment that they didn’t really care what their workers did with social media as long as they remained valuable to the company. We all take breaks from work via the Internet from time to time. But keeping up with the field, researching a particular problem, creating connections with potential clients can all be done via social media. My primary use of Twitter is to pose questions to my followers as a kind of polling tool or when I’m stuck and need help. I also find interesting and important articles to read via Twitter. I read blogs to keep up with the field and I write in blogs as a way of synthesizing what I know about topics (writing as learning, anyone?). In the knowledge economy, productivity may be hard to measure, but certainly one can see if someone seems up on the field or is bringing in new clients. Does it matter if it was done via Facebook?

One comment I wanted to highlight and leave you with–tangential to the conversation, really–described a rather typical boomer (on the older end, I’d guess) family who is online. Let me just say that it made me laugh out loud because it described our families to a T:

Remember that even if the Boomer is on the Internet a lot, there still might be a gap.

I work from home as a freelancer. I run exclusively Linux, BSD, Solaris, *nix. I’m fluent in 15 programming/ markup languages, design graphics in many formats, have a blog, blah blah.

My Boomer in-laws have had computers for the length of my marriage (currently going on 16 years), and yet they still use Windows + AOL. Yes, you heard me. They still get hosed with viruses and malware, they still get their bank accounts cleaned out by 419 scammers, they reply to every spam and always click every ad banner that tells them to, and about every 2 years their computer “breaks” and they have to buy a new one. They’re as good as married to Best Buy’s “Geek Squad”, whose word is gospel to them.

The fact that their son-in-law has earned his living and supported their grandkids in technology the entire time they’ve known him doesn’t add a lick to his credibility. My mother-in-law *corrects* me when I say she runs Windows – she “runs AOL”. She calls me up from Best Buy offering to buy me software. A 1000 times I’ve said, “That won’t run, we use Linux.” She cannot bring herself to speak such a foreign word. She thinks I’m possessed or in the mafia or something.

They’re Boomers, and they’re on computers and online alright, but that’s like putting a monkey in a car and saying that it can drive.

Let’s just say that Mr. Geeky and I keep computers up and running for 6-8 years while our families go through them every 2-3. Also, we’ve heard that Google is something you pay for and had to help people find their desktop icons again. Not to make fun of them or anything, but it’s also true that no matter how much we’ve tried to educate them, they often ignore us. We try to explain that we actually know what we’re talking about and that it’s our job to teach others how to use computers and stuff, so maybe we know something, but in one ear, out the other.

The Rise of Online Social Networks

Social computingImage by lorda via Flickr

Bryan Alexander points to a Nielsen report that shows that social network sites and blogs have now outstripped email in popularity. The biggest increase has been in the 35-49 age group (hey! that’s my age group). I think there are obvious reasons for this. First, is that this age group is likely to have teenagers who use online tools to connect with their friends. Those kids parents have signed up for Facebook or other sites to keep tabs on their kids. Or just to understand what it is that their kids are doing. Second, many of the initial adopters of these tools are now in jobs, working alongside their 30 and 40 something colleagues and encouraging them to use blogs or social networking tools for professional development.

Anecdotally, I’m seeing this increase too. I wrote before about being found in Facebook by high school and college friends (who are obviously in my age group), and being a little uncomfortable with that. Last night I was at Course Selection Night for new high school students (yikes! I have a kid going to high school!), and the PTSA handed out flyers indicating that they were on Facebook. I was actually happy about that and I’ll probably friend them soon. Yesterday, I was able to update my contact information and list my preferred volunteer activities via an online tool called PTO manager and I mentioned earlier that the elementary school used an online potluck site to coordinate a big event that required food donations. I was also able to find out more about the budget of the Middle School PTO through the online site because they posted the minutes.

In part, this has been spurred locally by a new mandate from the school district that they will not provide access to the student database for the PTO. In the past, materials were sent home via the students and/or were mailed and emailed by allowing the PTO access to mailing and email addresses. Well, no more. And so the PTO had to get creative about how to gather that information for themselves and how to reach out to parents. I think some of this new interest in online communication is spurred too by a younger group of parents. The parents of my daughter’s friends are often younger than me since their oldest is my daughter’s age. As these parents begin to volunteer, they’re more familiar with social networking than their older peers.

Interestingly, I was sitting behind some moms last night who thought that Facebook was a silly idea for the PTSA and didn’t want to get an account. As one mom said, “Whoever I want to see, I see. I don’t need to use Facebook for that.” Over the last 6 years that we’ve lived here, I’ve increasingly become aware of how many people grew up here. They have deep roots and have established connections over the years and don’t need these tools to maintain them or build new ones. They don’t socialize that way. But some of us do. Some of us are maintaining old friendships through blogging, twittering, and FB. Some of us are trying to find new connections through those same tools. And I’m glad to see some of the local organizations recognizing that there’s more than one way to connect with people.

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The Internet and the Brain

Partial map of the Internet based on the Janua...Image via Wikipedia

This week, an article in the Daily Mail featured Lady Susan Greenfield telling us that the Internet is not good for us. Good grief. Ars Technica, among others, point out that neither the article nor Greenfield point to any real research supporting her claims. If the Internet is making us stupid, then who are these people who recognize a lack of data to support claims?

There has been some research on this topic, which has been inconclusive. The concern is that kids/teenagers who are online or in front of screens too much and not interacting with people face-to-face might be losing valuable social skills. They might, for example, be losing the ability to read facial expressions and body language, both of which help people to communicate effectively. Fair enough. But that’s not the Internet’s fault. That’s a result of the kid not being encouraged to balance their screen time with other activities. I’m loath to completely blame parents here, but obviously, that’s one place to look. On the other hand, the research shows that older people can benefit from being online by creating new neural pathways, thus learning new things.

The Daily Mail article and Greenfield never actually say that the Internet is bad, but that it can change or may change the way we think. I’ve seen so many articles about various technologies that always assume change is bad. Change is neutral. It’s what we do with it that’s good or bad.

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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.

Online vs. "real" life

I’ve been thinking about this in a number of contexts over the last week. As I’ve moved away from an institutional job, my online life increasingly *is* my life. I work with people all over the country and meet with them via skype, in second life, or just back and forth via a Google doc. The people I interact with online are mostly people I’ve met in real life at conferences or other events. They are people I turn to for ideas, advice, and support. In my physical space, I haven’t yet found the rich support network I have online. I do have friends and former colleagues that I meet up with periodically (some of whom are also part of my online network), but it’s harder to find these people; there are fewer opportunities to “meet” in physical space. I’m working on finding and/or creating these opportunities, but it’s a slow process.

The reality and to some extent, the physicality, of online life hit home for us this week. Geeky Boy suspected that one of his online friends, someone he’d been gaming with for over 4 years, was about to commit suicide. He reported this to Mr. Geeky, who began trying to track down the kid. All we had to go on was a name and a state. Ideally, he might have contacted the parents, but he couldn’t, so he ended up calling the police. Meanwhile, GB was texting his friend and getting no response, which naturally had him worried. The police took the whole thing seriously and did indeed track down GB’s friend, almost simultaneously with the friend finally contacting GB. We’re glad that GB didn’t brush off the incident as some random kid he knew online and took the situation as seriously as he would for a friend he knew in person. The whole situation is an indication, perhaps, that many kids will form lasting and real friendships online. I have hope that the building of these relationships will make the online world more hospitable as people eliminate the distinction between relationships that are “real” and those that are online.

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.

My Co-Workers Live All Over the World

The thing I love most about social software is the way it’s connected me to so many different people, from many many places. Certainly when I started reading blogs and then writing my own, I tapped into a resource that allowed me to engage in critical inquiry with people I wouldn’t normally be able to because of distance or difference in discipline or even profession. I’ve learned from blogs that ideas come from unexpected quarters and that opening up the conversation makes it richer and more valuable.

While I still thing blogs and blogging are at the core of my social software world, my experience with Twitter has added another dimension to that world. When I first signed up over a year ago, I didn’t get it. Then I went to Faculty Academy at UMW and got more than 2 friends and it suddenly made sense. Alan Levine has a great Twitter curve that shows almost everyone goes through the same process and that Twitter can be quite addicting.

Here’s just a few things I use Twitter for:

  • Conference backchannel. This has been both good and evil. It’s good when the talk is good and people often send more links and make interesting comments. It’s bad when the crowd turns against the speaker and uses the backchannel to let off a little steam. Related use: conference notes.
  • Quick questions. I’ve thrown out questions to the twitterverse many times. I’ve asked everything from specific how-tos to more philosophical questions. The responses I get come in much faster than they would via email or even through a blog.
  • Arranging meetings. This is great at conferences when you don’t have someone’s cell or if you don’t even know who you want to meet with. I’ve arranged two meetups for dinner this way.
  • Keeping up with distant colleagues. This is actually my favorite use. I get to find out more about people I meet at conferences. I know now that some people go jogging every day, get up really early, or spend Saturdays making breakfast for their kids. These intimate details bind us together the same way they do when you talk to people in person. And then when I see them again, I feel like we haven’t been apart as long. We connect more quickly and then keep building up a relationship from there.

Although I have great colleagues locally, work can still be isolating at times. Twitter gives me a world full of co-workers, motivating and inspiring me constantly throughout the day.

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.

Google is not about privacy–and that may be okay

There’s a post this morning about how some people are complaining that Google Reader’s new feature where your shared items are shared with your contacts violates their privacy. Robert Scoble says that Google needs more granular privacy controls a la Facebook. I vote with his first response, that people need clarification on what public means.

I’ve written about this before, from the standpoint of being aware that future employers are increasingly eyeing a future employee’s online presence. Increasingly, I think, if you’re using social software, nothing is private. Search, even, is not private. Sure, there are ways to change settings so that your searches aren’t cached, your blogs aren’t pinging services, etc., but most people don’t change the defaults, so they’re just out there. And that’s okay. People just need to understand up front what it means to have so much of their online activity shared. And maybe being more open–online or elsewhere–is a good thing. Maybe it makes us more accountable for our actions. Sure, there are still some parts of our lives and our thoughts that are private, but mostly those parts aren’t being put online and if they are, I’d argue that either a) someone doesn’t understand how public the online space is; or b) they want people to know about those parts. Healthy skepticism is good, but paranoia leads us down a bad path.