The Challenging Intersection Of Facebook And Religion - And The Blurring of Public and Private Lives

Facebook religionFacebook creates a challenge when it comes to religion (and politics) for many of us who also use Facebook in a professional / work environment. I fervently believe that a person's religious views are their own private matter. Each of us should have the right, in my opinion, to hold whatever beliefs we want and to practice (or not) our religious views in whatever manner we wish.

For us to work together in a business setting, our religious views shouldn't come into play. In an ideal world, your choice of religion (including "none") shouldn't bother me - and mine shouldn't bother you. In the real world, of course, where we are imperfect humans, these choices, when known, do very often have impacts.

The reality is that there isn't really any reason for us to know the religious views of the other people around us in a professional setting.

Of the hundreds of people I've worked with in the corporate world over the past 20 years, before the world of social media I probably knew the religious views of only a very few. Usually it only maybe came up in a side conversation - or it was someone who was very open, or who was very involved in church fundraisers, mission work or other public activities. In a few cases I have worked with people who were also ministers and were public about that.

But for probably 99% of the people, I have had no idea - and that's perfectly fine.

Facebook, though, makes this complicated.

The Twin Taboos

Way back in 2007, I wrote about how the twin taboos of politics and religion were entering the workplace because of the many people who were then signing up on Facebook and "friending" other people at work... and filling out the various form fields on their Facebook profile with their politicial and religious views. I wrote in part:

A strong "born again" Christian may see that the problems of the world are because people have not accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior and need to do so. A strong atheist may see that the problems of the world are because of the very existence of religion and that it is the root of all evil. These are deeply-ingrained views:

Politics and religion are part of our core identity that helps form who we define ourselves to be.

When that part of our identity is confronted by a polar opposite, we naturally react. Conservative Christians will have second thoughts about atheists, and atheists will have second thoughts about conservative Christians.

Five years later I still see that article as on target. You can substitute, of course, any religious affiliations in that part I quoted. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists... pick your religion. Even within a "religion", different sects may have widely divergent viewpoints and deep emotional attachments. (Ex. Protestants/Catholics in Northern Ireland or Sunnis/Shiites in the Middle East)

With the emergence of the TimeLine replacing the "Wall", Facebook moved those religion/politics fields a bit. You have to click an extra link to actually find them, so their prominence is much less... but the TimeLine also created new challenges I'll mention below.

The Blurring Of Our Lives

The underlying issue is that we are engaged in a grand experiment of blurring all the various facets of our lives together, something I wrote about in 2009, asking whether this improved co-worker connections or just felt creepy. We all have many different contexts in which we interact with people. We maintain various different personas for each of those contexts. How we interact with our co-workers in the office may be very different from how we interact with our friends at a local bar which may yet again be very different from how we interact with people at a church or in a community group. As I said then:

This is particularly true with the divide between our "work" and "personal" lives. Sure, we've always shared some parts of our personal life inside the walls of our "work" environment. We've talked to our co-workers... gathered at water coolers or in break rooms or cafeterias. Some people have shared very openly about what they are doing and we've learned much about their overall personality. Others have remained very private and shared virtually nothing. To some degree, we all have a facade that we construct that is how we appear to our co-workers.

Yet the fundamental problem is this:

We have ONE Facebook profile.

All of those different people see one common Facebook profile. (Similarly they see one common Twitter stream.) And so when we write about religious issues or our religious views, or when we "share" images or content from our church into our NewsFeed, all our "friends" see the info.

There are more subtle, ways, too. When a friend posts a set of photos from a recent church service, I now learn of his affiliation. Or when another friend "checks in" at their church, I learn of her religious views.

Interestingly, the Google+ social network tries to solve this by letting you set up many different "circles" and then sharing information only out with certain circles. While a great idea in theory, choosing the circles with which you wants to share info adds time to a posting that most people don't seem to have... pretty much everything I see posted to Google+ seems to go to all of someone's circles and often even is posted as "Public" for all to see.

I asked in that 2009 post these questions:

What if the person sharing the "revealing" information is a co-worker? Do we understand yet how (or if) this changes our relationships? Do I gain more respect learning of a serious childhood illness now overcome? Do I lose respect for that co-worker when I learn of the drunken binges they go on each month? What if I don't like their politics or religion? Does any of this change the way I interact with the person? On one level, how can it not change my views of that person? - but can I/we move beyond that?

Have our "culture" and "conventions" caught up with the degree of information our tools now let us share?

Where is the line between information we share with co-workers and our "personal" lives? Is there even a line? Or is the very concept of such a line just a quaint anachronism of another era?

Three years later I'm not sure we're any farther along in answering those questions. Perhaps we will not be for many years to come.

"Frictionless Sharing"

In fact, in the last couple of years Facebook has made this even more complicated by removing the "friction" from sharing information... in other words, they have started sharing information about you without you being involved.

The classic case of this is sharing when you "Like" a page. Click the "Like" button on a page, such as that of your church, and... ta da... that will show up in the NewsFeed of many of your friends - or the "Ticker" running in the upper right corner of their Facebook window in a regular web browser.

Similarly, if you "Like" or comment on an item on your church's web page, that action, too, goes out into your newsfeed.

And if you've linked any location-based applications into Facebook, like FourSquare, that activity goes out into your NewsFeed:

Foursquare

The end result is that from all sorts of angles you wind up passing information about your religious views and activities out into your Facebook friends - sometimes consciously through postings, check-ins, etc.; and sometimes more inadvertently "leaking" through likes, comments, etc.

The Professional Challenge

The challenge, as noted earlier, is that if you use Facebook and connect with people from your work, sharing your religious (or political) views can potentially impact those relationships. We certainly saw this in the most recent U.S. election, where many people posted (or shared info/images) very passionately related to either the Obama or Romney campaigns. Those posts, at least the more venomous of them, may have caused some people to block others... or to unfriend them... or to simply lose some degree of respect for others.

This is particularly a challenge, too, if you are a "public" face of a company or organization. Whether you are an executive, a spokesperson or even just someone writing online for a company or organization, you become connected to that entity. Now if you are also sharing your religious views in ways that are easy to find, it could become problematic - do you wish to potentially alienate some % of your potential customers?

Moving it to a global scale, there are many parts of the world where religion plays a much larger role than others. Given the current conflict in Gaza, how well will parties from the other religion be received? If you interact with people on a global scale, you may need to have an even more heightened awareness of cultural sensitivities around religion.

Now let's be honest, though, and note that MANY (most?) work connections on Facebook may not even notice or remotely care about your religious views. "Meh, whatever..." is a commmon enough view. Particularly here in North America or in western Europe where the strength of religious concerns in society is nowhere near what it once was.

But what if someone who does care about your religious viewpoint happens to be your company's largest customer? Or your manager? Or your employee? Or CEO? Are you willing to take that risk?

Splitting Your Personality

In reaction to all of this, some people use multiple Facebook accounts. I have friends who have one Facebook account that they use for all their professional/work "friends" - and a completely separate Facebook account that they use for their close friends and perhaps family. One Facebook account is their "work persona" while the other is their more open and candid persona.

While this works, it does require a rigorous degree of discipline. You have to make sure you are in the right account before posting. On a mobile device, where I'm often posting to Facebook, this may require using separate apps for each account. For instance, one friend uses the Facebook app on an iPhone for his "work" account and the Hootsuite app for his "personal" account.

It can be done... but my worry, and the reason I don't do it myself (yet, anyway), is that it seems FAR too easy to mess up. Forget which window or app you are in and... BOOM... that more private post gets seen by all your work colleagues.

Oops.

The Counterpoint

The counter-argument to what I made above is that by being open and talking about your religious views (or at least not suppressing them) is that you may find new opportunities and connections. Rather than finding a percentage of people alienated by your views (or perhaps in addition to that %) you may find a % of people who actually embrace your religious views. Work connections may come forward with the information that they, too, share your views. Or they may be curious and want to know more. A learning experience may emerge that may lead to greater understanding.

Others with whom I've had discussions along these lines in the past have pointed out that by sharing, even if only through Likes or comments (i.e. nothing direct like posts), you are allowing yourself to be "whole" and true - that you are thereby giving yourself the permission to be who you really are both online and offline. Others have argued that if someone is not willing to work with you due to your religion, do you really want to be working with them?

Another group contends that the "Millenials" and others entering the work force today just expect that sharing of this kind of information will occur... and they are just going ahead and sharing it all, while we of the older crowd are writing over-analyzing articles like this one.

All good points, certainly, although I would note that in work contexts we don't often get the luxury to choose who we will work with as customers, co-workers, partners or vendors. Sometimes we do - often we don't.

What To Do?

I don't know.

I struggle with this myself. I've been online for over 25 years, since the mid-1980's, and have been writing prolifically since around 2000. Yet in all those many years of writing, tweeting, podcasting, etc., I don't know that you could find many, if any, references to my religious views in any of my writing. Ditto with political views, although I will admit to being a bit more forthcoming on that front in this past election within the walls of Facebook.

I don't believe either of those viewpoints should have any role in my current professional and work personas.

Yet I'm a pretty hardcore political news junkie (living in New Hampshire it is hard NOT to be!) and have had a lifelong passionate interest in religion and spirituality. Offline, I'm active in my local church, yet I don't bring any of that activity online - and I do struggle with that.  On a simple level, I would like to "Like" my church's Facebook page... but in doing so I start crossing that divide and blurring my own lines.

I have had any number of colleagues who are very open about what they believe and what their religious views are.  I've had many, many more who have kept that information to themselves.

As we continue this experiment in merging our lives together, this kind of information sharing will become increasingly unavoidable. Unless, of course, you choose simply to not participate, but even that will become harder as more of more of our communication moves online and into "the cloud."

There is certainly the potential that this increased sharing can lead to more connectedness between people and better communication and understanding... yet the potential is also there for increased division and fragmentation.

In the words of Facebook, "It's Complicated."

If you've read this far, what do you do?

Do you keep your religious and/or political views offline and/or private? Or do you not worry about any of it and just let all of that information hang out there? Will this kind of sharing become more expected and "normal"?  How will it change how we interact with each other? Or will it not? How will our cultural norms evolve?


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The Super Simple Secret to Stopping Online Piracy (Hint: It's not SOPA)

Memo To MPAA and other SOPA Proponents: Yesterday was a perfect example of the failure of your current business models to meet consumer demands - and the reason why there is online piracy. It also shows you the super simple secret to stopping almost all piracy.

Let me explain.

As probably most people here in the US know, yesterday we had the US football playoff championships. Even if you aren't a football fan, it was hard to escape the media attention. Particularly here in the "Patriots country" of northern New England.

While I don't really follow football, I do like to tune in around the playoffs to watch the final games. However, we don't have cable TV so I had no way to watch our local CBS station.

Here's the fundamental problem:

I HAD NO WAY TO PAY TO WATCH THE GAME!

None. Zip. Nada.

No CBS websites had a live stream of the game, nor any other legitimate websites I could find. If I tried to go to the NFL Networks' website and pay to watch a live stream, I got this message:

NFLNetworkFAIL

Yes, indeed...

NFL Network Online is not available in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and any U.S. territories, possessions and commonwealths (including American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

MPAA and SOPA proponents, are you paying attention?

I was trying to give an entertainment network money.

I had my wallet open. Credit card out.

And you failed me.

Now, in my case yesterday, I drove across town and watched the game at my brother-in-law's house. But had that not been an option and had I really cared enough, I would have gone online to one of the many live streaming sites and sought out a live stream that someone else was running.

Yes, that "someone else" might be someone who is taking a web cam, pointing it at the TV and using one of the many live streaming apps to send their stream out on the web.

It would have been someone "pirating" the live broadcast of the event.

And I might have had to listen to whomever it was swearing at the screen, eating chips and guzzling beer.

But I would have been watching the game!

Because you, the entertainment industry, couldn't give it to me in the way I wanted.

Artificial Scarcity In An Era Of Abundance

Now, I completely understand why I get this NFL Network Online error message. The NFL has all its various contracts with TV and cable companies where those companies pay the NFL a zillion dollars so that the NFL can then in turn pay the ginormous salaries of the players, the owners and everyone else involved.

The only way the NFL can get the income they need to sustain their business model is to create conditions of artificial scarcity.

The NFL, as a content provider, needs to provide exclusivity to a content distribution provider so that that distribution provider can charge whatever exorbitant rates it needs to charge to cover its investment of a zillion dollars.

The distribution provider, CBS, in this case, needs to recoup its investment somehow... and so it then has contracts with cable and satellite TV companies where it provides exclusivity for them so that they can then charge their own high rates to pay for their fees.

In this case, though, the content distribution provider, CBS, failed to provide a way for a consumer like me to legitimately/legally obtain the content.

The end content distribution networks, the cable companies and the satellite TV companies, also failed to provide a way for a consumer like me to legally obtain the content. I can't simply call up my local cable TV provider on a Sunday and say, "oh, hey, can you hook up my cable this afternoon so that I can watch the game? and then disconnect it after that?" And they have no way for me to simply view their content online over the Internet unless I am actually a paying subscriber (which again, I'm not).

The content provider, the NFL, similarly failed to provide a way for a consumer like me to legally obtain the content when the content distribution provider offered no option.

So, then, as a non-subscriber to a cable or satellite network, I really have only three options:

  1. Forget about the content and go do or view something else;

  2. Go somewhere where I can view the content; or

  3. Become a pirate. Watch the content on an illegal source.

And while I wrote here about wanting to watch a sports game, you can go back through my text and substitute:

  • watching the latest movie;
  • watching a hit TV show;
  • reading the latest novel of a best-selling author;
  • listening to a live concert;
  • listening to the latest album of a band.

The fundamental problem with this business model based on artificial scarcity is that is is completely broken in an era of abundance.

I don't need to subscribe to cable TV to get most of the news and entertainment that I want to watch. I don't need to sit in a movie theatre to see the latest movie. I don't need to go to a bookstore to buy the latest novel. I don't need to go to a music store to buy the latest album.

The Internet has severely disrupted all of those "traditional" channels and we now have an abundance of different channels and different ways to obtain our content and entertainment.

Propping Up Scarcity

What we are seeing with the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation here in the US is

the failure of the entertainment industry to adapt to the new consumer preferences.
Rather than spend their millions to figure out how to evolve and meet consumer demands, the industry would rather spend their millions to reduce/remove/eliminate/kill all those other distribution channels.

They want to prop up scarcity.

Keep their business model alive.

That's what this is all about. It's not about "breaking the Internet". It's about putting the proverbial genie back in the bottle and somehow trying to get back to an era when the entertainment industry could be in control of all the distribution channels and thereby charge whatever they felt like charging.

In the end, it will most likely fail. (Assuming we all in the Internet space continue to pay attention to what is going on.)

But the battle will be hard-fought largely because of the insane amount of lobbying money and people engaged with manipulating the political process.

The Super Simple Secret To Stopping Online Piracy

If you've read this far, you probably already know the simple "secret" to stopping almost all online piracy:

Give people a way to get...

the CONTENT they want

in the CHANNEL they want

at a reasonable COST.

That's it.

The vast majority of people, even those "young kids" people say want everything for free, will pay when a legitimate channel is made available.

Don't believe it?

Consider iTunes. Think of how many millions and millions of songs are being purchased every single day. Because Apple provided a very simple and easy way for people to legally obtain the music content people wanted in the channel they wanted (on their iPods/music players) at a cost that people felt was reasonable.

Now, if you go back a few years, the music industry wasn't too happy with Apple's move and did all they could to fight that move.

Apple understood: give people a way to get the music they want in a downloadable form at a reasonable price.

Sure, there's still probably online music piracy going on - there are some people who will never pay and want everything for free. But for the vast majority of people, why do they need to bother with a pirate music site when a legal download is only a click - and a buck - away?

Amazon's been similarly disrupting the publishing and book distribution business for years now - and now is doing it again with ebooks. Netflix and Hulu have been disrupting the movie and video distribution business.

They get it.

The MPAA and other SOPA proponents seem to be missing the point.

Entertainment industry folks - want to stop almost all online piracy?

Evolve.

Figure out a way to get us the content we want in the channels we want at a cost that works for us.

Figure out how someone like me can decide to watch a sports game and go online and pay to view it live. Figure out how to let someone watch the latest TV episode of a popular series either live or shortly thereafter. Figure out a way that someone can watch the newest movie in their big huge home theatre on the day of release. Oh, and figure out how to do this globally.

Do that and probably 99% of the online piracy you are currently whining about will simply... go away.

Does that trash most of your existing business models?

Absolutely. I'm not saying this is easy.

I'm only saying that the solution from a consumer point-of-view is simple.

Yes, some of the jobs and companies (and even industries) of today may be lost... but new ones will be created. Yes, the transition will be extremely hard on some people. Transitions always have been. But sticking your head in the sand and pretending the transition isn't happening will not make it go away. It will only make the transition harder on the people in those jobs and companies.

Stop spending your millions on lobbying for profoundly stupid legislation like SOPA/PIPA and instead spend it on figuring out how to reinvent the way you connect with consumers in the world of today.

Evolve.


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Video: Oh, the Places You'll Go at Burning Man!

I hadn't really mashed up Dr. Seuss and the annual Burning Man festival in my brain, but a gent named Teddy Saunders did and the result is this amazing video!

It's a wonderfully well-done re-telling of Dr. Seuss' classic book "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" set in the Arizona desert and showcasing many creative people and their structures, artwork and talents. The whimsical nature of Dr. Seuss fits so well with the structures and the people.

For communicators it's an interesting example of taking a well-known story and using video from an event to illustrate that story. I'm not quite sure that anywhere other than Burning Man could illustrate this particular story so well, but the idea is very good to think about for other events.

Enjoy...


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Watching Cairo Burn... And Egypt Go Offline...

We truly do live in amazing times. From my home here in New Hampshire, I could watch the amazing footage coming out of Cairo, Egypt, courtesy of the Al Jazeera English live video stream:

cairo1.jpg

Incredible pictures... and an excellent job when I listened by the Al Jazeera anchors and staff as they tried to make sense of what all was happening.

Even more so as the Egyptian government seems to have severed all connectivity to the global Internet! Hundreds of stories have been written about this today, but the simplest illustration may be this chart attributed to Arbor Networks:

egypttraffic.jpg

Internet connectivity into Egypt simply.... ended, outside of a few scattered pockets of connectivity.

The saga in Egypt will continue to play out over the hours and days ahead... it's a crazy time there right now... I do hope it all works out without too much chaos, but we'll see...


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MLK Day And Celebrating One of the Great Orators of our Time

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the U.S. and while there are many reasons to celebrate and commemorate the life and message of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for communicators there is perhaps a particular aspect of King to reflect upon, namely his tremendous oratorical skills. Over on Ragan.com today, Andrew Dlugan analyzes MLK's most famous speech in "‘I Have a Dream’ holds 5 lessons for speechwriters and the post is well worth a read.

If you haven't listened to that speech in a while, it's worth the 11 minutes:

As a public speaker myself, I admittedly stand in awe of King's mastery of oratory.


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Where have all the bookstores gone? The move to e-books and the changing book distribution model

Do you still shop in a bookstore?  Or do you buy your books online at sites like Amazon.com? Or have you ditched print books altogether and now read "e-books" on a reader like an iPad or a Kindle?

As E-Books Gain, Barnes and Noble Tries to Stay Ahead - NYTimes.com.jpgThe New York Times is out today with a piece about the changes at Barnes & Noble and also about changing consumer trends in general that is worth a read.  Interesting stats on the changes in buying habits:

In the first five months of 2009, e-books made up 2.9 percent of trade book sales. In the same period in 2010, sales of e-books, which generally cost less than hardcover books, grew to 8.5 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers, spurred by sales of the Amazon Kindle and the new Apple iPad.

As an author, but also as simply a lover of reading and of books, I do wonder about where we re going. If I look at my own behavior, we have two large bookstores here in Keene, NH. One is a Borders branch and the other is a local Toadstool Bookshop. Both are great places to browse books... Borders has a coffee shop/cafe area and WiFi. Here's the thing, though:

I almost NEVER go there!

Part of it is that I don't find I have time in my daily life to just go and browse through books. Maybe I should make that time... but I don't... and I don't see it happening soon. The other reality is that as a cheap... er.. "frugal" Yankee, I just don't want to pay the higher prices of a bookstore when I can get the exact same book for less online, particularly once you get sucked into Amazon Prime and can get a book delivered so fast.

I've also bought more e-books this year than ever before, largely because I now own an iPad. I had purchased a few before for my iPhone or desktop, but the reading form factor wasn't that great. The iPad is great for reading... and again there's a price factor. I bought a bunch of O'Reilly books I'd wanted not too long ago when the ebook versions were only $5.

An interesting aspect of e-books (or are they "ebooks" or "eBooks"?) is the ease of receiving updates. Just today I received an email from O'Reilly that there is an updated version of one of the books I bought that has a number of corrections and fixes. Pretty much impossible to do with a printed book, particularly because they wouldn't know I had bought it. (More anonymity with print books... a subject for another blog post.)

Now, there are a host of reasons why I personally still like print books... "tree-ware"... I'm not yet cool with the idea of "cuddling up in bed" at the end of the night with my e-reader. And I just like the feel of a book in my hands. But I can see the day coming...

How about you? Do you go to bookstores anymore? Do you still buy books? Or have you shifted to e-books?


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Does Facebook Change a 25th High School Reunion?

classof85reunion.jpgWhat if you went to a "reunion" already knowing a great bit about the people you are reconnecting with? Would it allow you dispense with all the initial "small talk" and move on to having deeper conversations? Would it make it better? worse? awkward? great?

I'll find out myself on Saturday evening. You see, I'm traveling back down to southern Connecticut where I grew up to attend my 25th high school reunion - and Facebook has added a fascinating dimension to the gathering.

RE-CONNECTING

A year or two back (it may even be more now), some people from my hometown created a Facebook Group for people who "grew up in the 70s and 80s" in our town. I joined that group and through that reconnected with a good number of folks that I literally hadn't communicated with in most of 2 decades. (Hmm... using "decades" makes me feel old!) Over time that communication has led to multiple phone calls, great email/message exchanges and even a couple of face-to-face meetings in different parts of the world.

Then maybe a year or so ago as the excellent organizer started planning this Saturday's reunion event, she set up a Facebook event, sent out Facebook messages and otherwise integrated Facebook into the outreach she was doing to find and alert class members. There were something like 300 people in my high school graduating class and obviously over 25 years we've drifted around the world.

The result has been that I've reconnected on Facebook with a good number of people who I can truly call "friends". I grew up from birth in the same town as did many of them... and we shared the same classes, teachers and community activities in our town of then around 25,000 people. We liked each other and hated each other and liked each other again... and all the other dynamics that happen in longstanding communities.

THE EFFECT

The fascinating part, to me, about the reconnection on Facebook is that - for the people on Facebook - I now go into the reunion already knowing many of the small details that you typically start out with... "what have you been doing for the past 25 years?"... is already partly or mostly answered. In many cases, I already know:

  • where they are living now
  • what people look like now (though not all have posted recent photos ;-)
  • who is married, divorced, remarried, single, etc.
  • who has kids and who doesn't
  • if they have kids, how old the kids are, what they look like, what activities they are into
  • what people do for a living now, and potentially what kind of career they have had
  • what special highlights people have experienced (ex. books written, awards received...)
  • what people like to do in their spare time
  • who likes to place games on Facebook
  • who has an active social life
  • what music they like
  • in some cases, their political or religious views

The interesting part is that this knowledge has come to me NOT from me going out and reading their individual profiles or anything focused like that... but rather just from the "ambient intimacy" of having their updates appear in my Facebook NewsFeed over the past year or two.

They, of course, also probably know way more than they ever needed or wanted to know about me, given my prolific online content creation, be it writing, video, audio, etc.

THE IMPACT?

Will this make the reunion better? worse? the same? I don't know... in some cases I know we'll be able to start out at a deeper level. In at least one case, I know now to avoid political discussions. :-) It will be interesting to see.

Another note is that a good number of people are not on Facebook and so, with them, the conversation does start back at that question: "so, what have you been doing for the past 25 years?" Does that create a disparity between the "strongly connected" set of people and those who are more weakly connected?

All interesting points to ponder as we consider the continued blurring of our lives and how Facebook and other online tools/services continue to change how we connect and communicate.

I'm pretty sure, though, that I won't be pondering any of that Saturday night... I'm just looking forward to an evening getting together with some old friends... :-)

What about you? Have you attended a reunion for a high school or college (or other group) after connecting on Facebook? How did it change (or not) the event for you?


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Re-examining how I use Facebook - and again the blurring of our lives

facebook.jpgWho do you "friend" on Facebook? And how do you resolve the tension between private and public interaction?

It's funny how synchronicity works some times. Last week I was thinking about writing a post about how my use of Facebook has changed - or perhaps will change... when a note in my Twitter feed pointed me to a post from Michael Hyatt called "Re-Thinking My Facebook Strategy" which hit many of the points I was thinking about writing.

MICHAEL HYATT'S DILEMMA

Hyatt, who is CEO of Thomas Nelson, Inc, hits one of the central dilemmas relating to our online networking - the incredibly loose way in which we use the word "friend". Leaving aside all the English teachers rolling over in their graves at the way we are now using "friend" as a verb (ex. "I wasn't sure if I should friend him."), Hyatt provides a useful taxonomy of the types of people we interact with online:

  • Family: These are the people who are related by blood or by marriage. I have occasionally been too loose with term, too. I have used it to refer to close personal friends or even the “Thomas Nelson family.” But I don’t think this is accurate or helpful. It creates the illusion of something that is not true. From now on, I am going to use this word as it was intended.

  • Friends: These are the people I know in real life. They are people I have met face-to-face, enjoy being around, and interact with in real life. (These three elements are key.) Frankly, a few of these relationships started off online through Twitter. Over time, they grew and developed. Regardless, I have a few deep and significant friendships. But if I am honest, I don’t have many. I only have so much time available.

  • Acquaintances: These are people I have met online or off. I may know their name or even their face. We may even have been friends at some point in the past, but we don’t have an ongoing relationship. We only know one another at a superficial level, and that’s just fine. We just have to be clear that these are not are “friends.”

  • Fans: These are the people who know my public persona or my work. This is also where people get confused because the relationship is not mutual. For example, I am a fan of Chris Brogan. We have even met once. I know lots of stuff about him, because of his blog and Twitter posts. This creates the illusion of intimacy. If I am not careful, however, I could fool myself into thinking I have a relationship with Chris. I don’t. I’m just one of his many fans.

Hyatt goes on to discuss his decision to only keep as "friends" on Facebook his family and actual "friends". His acquaintances and friends he has moved over to a newly-created Fan Page within Facebook. Through this exercise, he has gone from having 2,200 "friends" on Facebook to down to 100. He notes these lessons:

    You have to understand the difference between friends, acquaintances, and fans.

  • If I try to be everyone’s friend, I will be no one’s friend. I must be deliberate and selective.

  • I will probably offend some of the people I unfriended. That’s okay. My sanity and real friends are more important than meeting the expectations of fans and acquaintances.

  • I need to be very careful who I accept as a friend on my profile going forward. Just based on mouse clicks, it’s three times as much work to unfriend someone as friend them.

The comments to both this post and Hyatt's earlier post about his dilemma make for interesting reading. How we relate to each other in online sites like Facebook is in my mind a key part of how we build our online identities as we all live in this increasingly interconnected space. As I wrote about back in January 2009 in a post "The blurring of our lives: Does learning info about co-workers via Facebook improve connections? Or feel creepy?", the different contexts in which we have traditionally interacted with people are all crashing together. The larger ramifications of this on a cultural level are still to be determined.

blurringofourlives.jpg

MY OWN CASE

Now I'm obviously not the CEO of a publishing company and don't have quite the high public profile that Michael Hyatt has. But I do have a public profile... through my various online sites and blogs, my weekly reports into the FIR podcast, my fairly heavy use of Twitter, my very public persona for Voxeo in blogs and Twitter and various other ways that I generate content online. Will all of that online extroversion do come the many Facebook connections (and connection requests) from so many people. Through all of that, I've made some wonderful connections - many of which started online and grew to include face-to-face meetings at various conferences or events. Some of those relationships have remained entirely online but have grown to become what I would consider true friendships.

And yet in other cases I've received connection requests from people who "follow" me in some context... perhaps Twitter... perhaps FIR... perhaps my various blogs... and I haven't really known how to handle them.

Now I've always applied fairly stringent criteria to whom I accept connection/friend requests from on both Facebook and LinkedIn. A number of years ago, I wrote about how "promiscuous linking" weakened the "web of trust" within services like LinkedIn. And I've applied that in LinkedIn very strongly... with perhaps only 1 or 2 exceptions that were accepted in moments of weakness, I know personally and have interacted in some capacity with the 500+ contacts I have in LinkedIn. I don't accept someone's connection request unless I do know them.

On Facebook, it's been similar: I've been fairly stringent about who I accept as a "friend" - although I admit that in the early days I was a bit more open. I joined Facebook several years back shortly after it had been opened up beyond the college/university crowd and there was a good-sized group of us trying to figure out what this Facebook thing was all about - and also how it could or could not be used for business communication. So for a while, I was accepting many friend requests from people I knew only peripherally, many of whom Hyatt would have termed acquaintances at best and perhaps really more "fans". Add to that... all the people I know who are friends, but are friends from different contexts... and it gets interesting.

In the words of Facebook... "It's complicated."

MY CHANGING USAGE OF FACEBOOK

Along the way, I've found that the way I use Facebook has changed somewhat dramatically. In the earlier days, I was exploring it mostly as a business communication tool. My updates... my applications... my notes... all of them were much more business-focused. (And many of my friends probably view my newsfeed today as mainly that... although I can assure them it was more so in the past.)

But somewhere along the way... perhaps sometime after I made my abortive attempt to connect my Twitter firehose directly into my Facebook status updates for a few weeks (resulting example (one of many): "Dan, we are friends, but man, your updates are killing me - you're making up over 90% of my news feed!"), I found that I wanted to use Facebook differently.

I have found that I want to retreat inside the walled garden of Facebook (even while despising walled gardens and fearing for the future of the open Internet)... that I want to share more private information with a smaller group... that I want to share photos, perhaps even of family... that I want to engage in deeper conversations with people I know well - and through that come to know them better.

In part, I'll credit my wife for some of this change. An artist whose eyes routinely glaze over when discussion turns to the online world I live in, she resisted joining Facebook for ages. When she finally did recently, though, she became a very active user... and in watching her interactions I saw more of the possibility for deeper interaction. It's been fascinating, really, to see how she uses it.

THE PUBLIC/PRIVATE DILEMMA

My challenge, of course, is similar to Michael Hyatt's: How do you create a private space in which to have deeper interaction while also simultaneously nourishing and expanding/growing your public persona and public interactions?

Like Hyatt and many of those commenting to his posts, I have a VERY deep and strong aversion to Facebook's terminology of a "Fan Page". I'm NOT a celebrity. I want people to be able to interact with me publicly... yet I don't want them to have to use the bizarre terminology of calling themselves a "fan" of me.

It's the word "fan" that gives me the most trouble.

Being a "fan" has an implied endorsement... a positive feeling. You are a fan of someone or something... you like it... you support it... you endorse it. It makes me uncomfortable.

The "follower" term of Twitter or "subscriber" term of Friendfeed are far less emotionally loaded.

Perhaps if Facebook, in their current lust to become Twitter, could move to talking about "Public Pages" and letting people "subscribe" instead of become a "fan", those of us uncomfortable with the current terms might more readily make use of the function within Facebook.

SO... WHAT TO DO?

I don't know.

I do know that probably in the last year or so, I've become even more stringent in who I accept as a Facebook "friend". My criteria has become:

  • Do I know this person well?
  • Do I know them well enough that I am comfortable sharing with them personal information about myself?

If the answer to either is "no", then I either "ignore" the request or, in some cases, just park the request in my "Requests" area of Facebook waiting to make a decision.

This has from time to time put me in the uncomfortable situation where there have been people with whom I have peripherally interacted - and with whom I would perhaps like to interact more with - but with whom I don't yet have that comfort level. For those folks, I've perhaps tried to interact with them more on Twitter, where through @replies you can interact with people very easily without needing an established relationship.

As noted above, I don't like the "Fan Page" idea... and so I still don't know how to interact with those who want to engage with my public persona - and with whom I would definitely like to interact in that persona.

Or is perhaps the whole idea of private versus public interaction one I need to simply discard when it comes to Facebook?

We do, indeed, live in interesting times... and sorting out all these different ways of how we interact with each other in this blurred world will definitely take some time.

What do you do? If you have a public face, how have you separated your private versus public interaction in Facebook? Or have you not?


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Is "family identity" dead? (In a communications form)

Is the concept of "family identity" dead in terms of communications?

As I was thinking about my talk tonight over the weekend and how the ways in which we communicate are changing, one of the themes that kept emerging was what I'd call "The Death of Family Identity".

Think about it... once upon a time, there were primarily two ways that people would communicate with members of a household (outside of the obvious one of knocking on the front door):

  1. Postal mail
  2. Telephone

In both cases, there was one "address" for the family... either the postal address or the phone number. In either case, you could contact "the Yorks", for instance, by sending a letter to the address or by calling the family phone number. The mail or phone might be picked up by any member of the family, but it could be shared or passed along to other members of the family. Mom, dad, brothers, sisters, friends or whomever lived there... anyone could potentially see the mail or get the phone call.

YOU HAVE REACHED "THE YORKS"

Let's take the phone. My parents have had the same phone number for 35 years. Growing up, anyone could have called that number and reached either of my parents, myself or my brother. That was the number to call us on. Period. End of story. And while there were certainly some disadvantages to this approach... busy signals (pre-call-waiting), messages not being delivered, people listening in on extensions... there was also a solid sense of "identity". You could leave a message there and someone in the family would get it. If it was urgent, someone could try other ways to reach the person - or could provide info about where the person was.

Fast forward to today... mobile phones are ubiquitous and traditional "landlines" are being shed at a rapid pace. As today's mobile-phone-using college generation starts to buy homes, will any of them actually bother with a landline? What's the point? The mobile phone lets you receive your calls wherever you are. No more messages that aren't communicated to you by a family member... no more busy signals because your sibling is on the phone...

Personally, I wouldn't invest in the landline biz... sure, many of those who have them in their houses today will keep them until you pry the handset out of their cold, dead fingers... but that's a market that's capped. And many of us who have them may move... if I can eventually figure out a solution for fax and 911, I'll probably cut the cord, too.

But let's think about that in terms of "family identity":

  • Mobile numbers are individual - Each person has a mobile phone. Mom, dad, brother, sister... everyone has their own phone with their own number. For families who have "cut the cord", how do you just leave a message for the family? Say you want to invite them over for dinner... how do you just leave a general message? You can't... you have to call one of the individuals. Or maybe you call a couple. (Or maybe you just text them all.) It's no longer simple.

  • Mobile phones are less reliable - Your ability to reach the family members assumes, of course, that their mobile phones are reachable. Batteries die and need to be recharged. Phones are lost. Someone is traveling in an area with bad coverage (recall that I live in the wireless backwater known as the United States). Voicemail messages may not be delivered in a timely fashion. None of these were generally issues with traditional landlines.

  • Mobile phone numbers change - How many mobile phone numbers have you had in the last, say, five years? Some of you may still have the same numbers, but odds are most of you reading this have gone through several numbers. Either because you switch carriers and cannot move your number... or it's just too much of a pain in the neck and it's just easier to get a new one. Or you wanted that shiny new phone that another carrier had and so you wound up with two mobile phones? Regardless of the reason, there is more churn in mobile numbers. Anyone seriously think they'll have the same mobile phone number for 35 years?

So in a world without home landlines, how do you reach "the Yorks"? Sure, you could set up a "family number" through an abstraction layer like Google Voice that would ring all family phones... but how many people are actually going to do this?

SNAIL MAIL

Do I even need to discuss it? When was the last time any of you reading this wrote an actual "letter" to someone and mailed it in the postal service? When is the last time you received a personal letter?

Messages are sent online... either through "e-mail" or IM or increasingly through services like Facebook, etc. And all of those media have the same issues as mobile phones: they are almost always individual, they are less reliable, they change.

Gone are the days of the sending a letter to "The Yorks". Now you have to cc a bunch of email addresses and hope they all get there... or rely on someone in the family to send it to everyone.

(And sure, some of us, myself included, still engage in this quaint, anachronistic custom of sending "Christmas cards" to a family, but even there I've increasingly seen friends and family reciprocating with "e-cards"... that time is probably limited, too.)

SO DO WE CARE?

Is "family identity" dead in our brave new online world of 2009? Does it matter? Are we better of with the convenience we have today and the ways we have to connect as individuals?

I don't know the answer. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it does. Maybe it's just another aspect of the changing fabric of our society where we don't yet understand the full ramifications as we continue our evolution into the cloud... Part of me feels like we are losing something... but the pattern isn't fully clear.

What do you think?


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Social media, attention, distraction and overload...

One of the themes of my writing here and in my thinking in general is that we still don't understand the changes that are happening to our society with all the new media and communication methods all around us. For instance, I wonder a great deal about whether our "multi-tasking" is truly a good thing for us in the long run. Even as the latest "Millenial" generation emerges that is used to living in a "perpetual state of partial attention"... is that a good thing? As we increasingly divide our attention and our focus among many different tasks, will that help us get more things done? Or fewer? (Because, in fact, we are losing focus?)

I have my views... but I don't know... and I don't know that we will know for quite some time.

On that subject, though, Wired came out recently with an article "Digital Overload Is Frying Our Brains" that is really an interview with author Maggie Jackson who is writing a book "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age". I know very little about Jackson, although her blog does have some interesting posts (albeit very infrequently posted) but the topic is obviously one of interest to me. The title, in particular "the Coming Dark Age" part, seems a bit over the top... but I also realize that there is a marketing exercise involved with titling books - and this one certainly does draw attention.

The book isn't due out until September 2009, apparently, but it will be interesting to learn more about it as that date draws closer.

In the meantime, I have 37 other books to read, a bunch of blog posts to write, some podcasts to listen to... some updates to tweet... and I should put out some status reports in here somewhere... oh, yes, and the email and IM conversations to attend to...


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