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The blurring of our lives: Does learning info about co-workers via Facebook improve connections? Or feel creepy?

facebook.jpgAt what point does all the information sharing in Facebook (and other social media) that is now visible to your co-workers cross over from being helpful in building connections between employees and move into feeling like a somewhat creepy invasion of privacy?

Right now we are living through a grand experiment in blurring the lines between personal and business lives.... between "friends" in the traditional sense, "friends" in the local community, "friends" we've met online and "friends" who are co-workers (and in some cases "friends" who are vendors, customers, etc.).

blurring-presocialmedia-1.jpgSure, those lines have always been blurred in some fashion. Many times the people we work with are some of our closest "friends". For many people who work in jobs in a local community, the intersection of their "friends" between employees, customers, and people they know in the community is very high. The same people come into their store that they see at a local sports game... or see at the local school... or go to the same church with... or see at a local bar.

For others, the intersection may be quite smaller. Co-workers may be far away. The job may have little or no connection to the local community. Family may be scattered all over the region, country or globe. "Friends" may be fewer or may be farther apart - or may be more online. In larger communities, especially, you may go to a church on the other side of the city and have kids in a sports league in another part of the city and your office may be in yet another part of town.

The degree of the blurring has a lot to do with the size of the local community you live in and the degree of your connection to that community. You may not attend a church... or play in a sport (or have kids that do)... you may not have kids and not have the school connections.

The point is that we've typically have different groups of people with whom we've shared different pieces of information. We know people in different "contexts" and share information with them in that context and often that context alone.

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.

The wall between work and personal lives has been there.

blurring-socialmedia.jpgThat wall is being demolished, though, along with all the other walls, in the new world of social media. We typically have only one Facebook account... we have one Twitter account... we have one MySpace account... and so on. We add "friends" who we know in various contexts to the same account.

Think for a moment about who you have added as Facebook "friends" (assuming you use Facebook). I know my list contains at least this:

  • people who have been long-time friends in the traditional sense of the word
  • people I know through activities related to VoIP/communications
  • people I know through activities related to information security / VoIP security
  • people I know through activities related to marketing / PR / communications / blogging / podcasting
  • co-workers from my current employer
  • co-workers from previous employers
  • several industry analysts
  • developers / programmers I know from various projects
  • people I met while living in Ottawa, Ontario, and Burlington, VT
  • people with whom I was involved starting up a curling club in VT
  • a couple of extended family members
  • an increasing number of people I grew up with back in the 70s and 80s, some of whom are probably wondering what in the world it is I do now
  • people I've met at various conferences and became friends with
  • a few people from Keene, NH, where we moved this summer
  • other people I've met randomly in some context and become friends with

It's a diverse list of people... and yet they all see the same information in my Facebook NewsFeed. They see the same status updates... they see the same photos I post... the same Notes I import... the same del.icio.us bookmarks... the same videos I create.

The many different contexts are blurred into one.

Now maybe this is a great thing... we all get to learn more about each other - and the person behind the facade that we construct for each context. Or maybe are we learning too much. Where is the line?

Going back to my original question at the beginning... within Facebook the "25 random things about me" meme seems to be going strong in recent weeks, at least among the people to whom I am connected on Facebook. You know, it's the "here are 25 things about me that most people don't know". We went through a whole string of memes like this out in the blogosphere a few years back and now and then they keep surfacing.

Anyway, the few posts I have had time to read in Facebook lately have actually been quite fun to read. I've learned a lot about some of the folks... remembered old stories... learned new ones. Some have been discreet in the info shared... and some have been more revealing than I would personally be.

It's that latter bit that got me thinking about all of this. 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?

P.S. For my own part, I assume there is no line and continue to follow the mantra: "Never put online (anywhere) anything you would not want to appear on the front page of the New York Times." Perhaps that limits my "openness", though...

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