Our complex social connections
Recently, as happens when politics become a hot topic in the social spaces, a dear and close friend was struggling with some questions around unfriending and social media: wondering out loud why expression of opinion would lead to unfriending, and if so then why was the person on their friends list in the first place. What a simple question that has a long and complex answer, if any answer at all. I’d like to try to tackle this from a high level, conceptual view and hopefully translate that into something usable….
You may have noticed that when I am blogging about work related items, I primarily use the phrase “social business”, but when talking about the tools or channels used I say “social media”. I don’t use the two phrases interchangeably, because they have very different implications, some of which are germane to this post: specifically that it shows a basis of intent. Social business as a phrase implies how we go about utilizing the social media tools to further our business goals or solve business problems. Social media, on the other hand, is the venue in which we apply our social business actions. Note, that neither of these two phrases have I implied any human connection.
That human connection is where things get fuzzy, fast. Not because it doesn’t exist in social business, but rather because it does. Human interaction throughout our social media channels comes with deep complexities because we all use these channels for differing purposes. I don’t mean wide-breadth differences either, I mean those subtle differences that are nearly imperceptible. THOSE are the bits that get fuzzy and sticky and cause discomfort at times. Some people use social media to keep in contact with only family, some with friends and family, others go wider and include co-workers, and even wider yet some will add just about anyone to their networks. Our individual criteria for who we add to any given network changes fluidly between persons and channels causing the complexity of existing criteria to grow exponentially. This difference in criteria undermines some of the basic social contracts we all agree to when adding someone to our networks: we sub-consciously assume the same criteria was used by both parties when that is likely never the case. Add on to this complexity of criteria the differences between face to face interactions and online social interaction, and the differences between people are multiplied yet again. All of this is rolled up into a single word: friends, a word which contains subtle complexities of such a wide berth that the word itself means different things for every person who uses it.
There is also a safety of false anonymity provided by our computer screens and text bases communication, just as there is also a false intimacy that plays counterpoint. Both of which vary slightly (or at times greatly) from connection to connection. Just like in real life, every relationship is different. Social media channels, however, amplify and extend these differences and provide deeper visibility beyond what real life interactions would normally show. Physical life is far more transitory in visible interactions, whereas social media posts and comments have a far longer shelf life and greater visibility. Many things we learn about each other online would never come to light in our face to face interactions. This is becoming more problematic as we see these interactions conflicting with our assumptions of intimacy and connections both online and off. This seems to be especially true during election cycles and immediately following human induced tragedies.
Today we are in a paradigm shift of information; the ramifications of which touch every part of our lives regardless of where we consume that information. And therein lies another cultural shift we are encountering: Online and in face interactions are more commonly coming into conflict based on amounts of information available. Our old concepts and definitions of friends are being quickly outdated by virtue of access to information combined with our own ideological views and our abilities to reconcile the two when they disagree. This demands a deeper level of critical thinking in a world which is becoming more polarized as these views are stated in sound bites and reactionary fashions.
While all relationships are fluid and in constant change, social media has added a passive permanence which has never existed in society previously. Prior to internet interactions and friending/following, relationships that weren’t nurtured and actively maintained would wither and fade, commonly called “losing touch” or “drifting apart”. Now, however, the passiveness of relationship maintenance on-line has given an unprecedented and over-inflated sense of deeper or sustained relationships when those same persons offline wouldn’t necessarily ever be in contact again. This is also a wonderful part of social media tools in that we are able to maintain more relationships at longer distances and intervals of direct communication, but we need to recognize that the social contracts are different; friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter don’t equate to offline friends in an assumed way. GooglePlus has tried to capture the complexities of relationships in this manner with their implementation of Circles to categorize the people in your network and tailor your content shares to only specific circles, but G+ also still misses the fluidity of relationships and how people can easily and quickly shift from one level of intimacy to another. The manual curation for those shifts falls to the user, and no one has time for that level of manual maintenance, even assuming they have the focus and ability to accurately identify exactly when and how those shifts occur.
With this ever-changing landscape of shared information and passive-permanent connections making it easier for us all to become and remain connected to larger networks of people than ever in history, it is even more critical to maintain a thoughtful focus in our interactions. The polarization of dogmas and ideologies means we need to make the extra effort to think critically about what we say online along with how we say it, as the ramifications of what once would have been off-handed remarks to a single friend can now have a much more broad reach and impact than our experiences have taught us up to now. Adding intent to our interactions, not just reactive response will help us all navigate the shifting currents and tides of social engagement.