How different is the social web (and why)?

When I spoke at the Headshift insight event back in September, one of the points I made was that new forms of interaction on the web might feel subtly different from older ones. A couple of recent blog posts have called this to mind again. So here are some of my thoughts.

Barn Owl in flight

Over at the 3 Geeks… blog, Lisa Salazar argues that there is nothing new about social media.

Social networking isn’t new. I t has been around since the very first introduction to the internet. Just like Alexander Graham Bell, the first sign of life on the internet was an communication between UCLA and Stanford computers in 1969. And that certainly was social–the internet was built in response to the threat of USSR dropping bombs onto the US. Not exactly friendly but certainly social.

Through the internet, I have met people from all around the world. As I like to say on my job, I have traveled “virtually” everywhere.

Like Lisa, I have been online in one way or another for many years, but I feel that things have changed significantly between my early experiences and now. (This may just be a function of who we are — it is quite possible that Lisa invested better in her early online community than I did — so we should just be regarded as two anecdotal data-points.)

It is true that, as Lisa points out, people have built communities using e-mail lists, IRC and Usenet (as well as the closed networks such as Prodigy, AOL, Compuserve, The WELL, CIX, and all the others) since the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Those networks have been used to create content and connect people, just as we do now with the plethora of Web2.0 tools. Where is the difference? I am still trying to work it out.

I used to have an interest in Internet governance. I was a member of the CYBERIA-L mailing list (now apparently defunct [Update April 2015: I have since learned that the list has been resuscitated.]); I spoke at conferences in the US and UK; I wrote journal articles. But I never felt a connection with the governance community in the way that I do with the KM community now. It was as if we were all operating in our own focused silos. (That may also have been a result of the academic ivory towers that many of us inhabited.) I also pursued personal interests in Usenet newsgroups and on CIX. Those activities rarely spilled over into my work interests. I think that partitioning of lives is a hint as to how the old online world differs from the new one.

By contrast, my Web2.0 journey has been more open and fruitful. Apart from a couple of abortive attempts at blogging (I had no real focus, so they withered away very quickly), I started as most people do — reading other blogs and then graduating to comments. Once the comments became longer I felt I had found my voice and it was time to start blogging. At the same time, Facebook and LinkedIn gave me connections with and insights into people on whose blogs I had commented. As people started reacting to my blog posts with their comments and on their own blogs, I found that I was part of a real community. That sense of community has only deepened over time and with more interactions via Twitter and the like. I have even met some people face to face.

The difference between then and now, for me, is that the variety of interactions and ‘places’ where I engage with this community has broken down the silos that I experienced in the past. Because it is impossible not to see more facets of someone’s life and personality in their blogs, comments, tweets and status updates, it becomes easier to see them as real people — not just participants in a mailing list discussion, a conference or a newsgroup. We talk of work-life balance, but as Orson Wells points out early in this interview (from 0:48), there isn’t really a distinction.

Interviewer: Would you say that you live to work or work to live?

Welles: I regard working as part of life. I don’t know how to distinguish between the two; I know that one can and people do. I honestly think the best answer to that question that I can give you is that the two things aren’t separated in my mind.

Interviewer: There are people who devote everything to their work and have no life at all, but you have lived in a big way and you have worked in a big way…

Welles: And I don’t separate them. To me they are all part of the… Work is an expression of life for me.

For many of us, I think this is now true of our interactions with each other via online networks. Earlier this week, John Bordeaux provided a magnificent example of this in his post, “A Year Ago.” This time last year, John was laid off. His reaction was unconventional, but may offer a taste of future convention.

Using online social media tools, I stitched together a loose network of future colleagues and relationships to be tended.  Rather than broadcasting my increasingly urgent need for income, I trusted the network effect would work in time.

And it did.

Today I find myself engaged in meaningful and rewarding work to redesign a failed education system; working alongside leading professionals in innovation, public policy, and social change.

A year ago, I could not predict where I would be today.  Such is the nature of complexity and networks.  The theory suggested I should place myself in conversations, expand my connections into new networks, and a vocation would emerge.  (While I embrace the notion, I hope I never again have to conduct such experiments with my family’s financial health.)  I saw the traditional reaction to job loss as creating one-to-one intense conversations trying to match my talents to a company’s need.  Instead, I took this path.  Which amounted to no path at all, certainly not one any could predict.  To paraphrase Mr. Frost, that has made all the difference

The thing is, we knew that John was going through this. Not from his blog, but from changes in his LinkedIn status, from clues in his tweets. I hope he felt that the support we were able to give (often from a distance) was enough.

Ultimately, I think John’s experience shows that effective participation in online networks allows one to see a more authentic picture of people. Perhaps it is becoming less true that “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

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