The Morass of Online Social Networking

Posted on February 5, 2009 by Blake Leath

I don't know about you, but there are times -- times in the nooks and crannies of a given month, whether while waiting for an airplane or returning from a stretch break in the office -- that I can find myself utterly perplexed and overwhelmed by the 'online social networking sites' I have been 'encouraged' to join... or perhaps more accurately, pseudo-ordered to join, lest I risk being seen as a 4th generation Luddite.

I am both too old to invest more-than-partially in a social networking presence, and too young to admit full and utter defeat resulting from the sense of having felt 'passed' by the phenomenon.

Moreover, it's difficult for me -- and perhaps many of us -- to manage our many 'online and technology-based' identities.  By this, I don't mean anything lurid or second-identity-ish, but rather, the simple reality of remembering all my User IDs, Log-Ins, and various Account Passwords.

I mean, seriously. 

Think about it for a minute.

I'm sure you're no different; you likely have the very same issues and challenges.

1) I have an AOL Account (maybe yours is gmail, yahoo, hotmail, netzero, mac)... a Screen Name and Password.  (Five actually, each created since 1994 or so... and each representing different 'phases of life' or whatever.  Today, I have sloughed-off four of them, sticking to just one now for the past few years.)

2) I have my Outlook Account for the office and my 'professional' life.  It, expectedly, has a unique User Name and Password.

3) Being told perhaps two years ago that 'Linked In' was the 'professional's Facebook,' I obliged and created a User Name and Account and completed a full-blown profile there, though I seldom check it.  People often Link In to me, but I must admit, the tangible value of the presence is highly fuzzy.

4) Being ping'd (e.g., 'friended') repeatedly by others to "Join my Plaxo Network," I again obliged so I could simply respond to them and, subsequently... I have a User Name, Password, and maybe even a profile as well, though I haven't checked Plaxo in months.

5) I have my Cell Phone, which leads to lots of 'Voicemail checking' that we all do throughout the day.

6) We have our Office Phone, which requires more Voicemail checking.

7) There's the Home Phone, which periodically gets backed-up with all sorts of calls.

8) And there's MySpace and Twitter, neither of which I have ever visited, partially because I don't entirely know what they are (sorry/eeeek/forgive me), and partially because the pervading water-cooler-reputation of each is that they are more 'adolescent.'  This, despite my realization that MySpace has over 120 Million monthly site visitors and even more members.  I suspect that I am indeed a troglodyte, having abstained from joining yet another community, and clearly the biggest.

9) And finally, the coup de grace, Facebook.  Which I very stubbornly refused to join... quite successfully, in fact, until earlier this week when I was informed that "to not have a Facebook account is equivalent to lacking a cell phone; at some point you're simply out of touch."  Well, okay then.  I relent.  So, voila, another online presence and profile to maintain.  Or avoid.  And goodness, this one's needy!  It has all sorts of Info and Wall Graffiti and the like that could very well take over a universe like weeds.  I'm not sure what, precisely, the site is about... and so my 'overwhelmed-ness' grows.

I yearn for the day when "the Internet 2.0" or whatever my guru friends are describing actually comes true.  A day when my 'online identity or presence' can be carried with me wherever I go; exported, imported, plugged and played into whatever and wherever I am. 

I would much prefer to have just one online Portal, rather than these half-dozen sources of 'presence' and 'messaging' that make checking notes the equivalent of some masochistic and labyrinthine Easter Egg hunt.  (I have a difficult enough time locating my car keys.)

I recollect, with great nostalgia now, the simple mustard-yellow wall-phone in the kitchen of my childhood.  The one with the twenty-feet-long cord that my sister would twirl around her fingers as she sat and talked just around the corner on the shag-carpet in the living room.

If it were a couple decades ago, and I were in college again, I am certain that MySpace and Facebook would hold much allure for me and my cohorts.  After all, they would serve a real utilitarian function!  "I'm going to the library," one might write.  "Find me in the southeast corner of the fourth floor."  And then, one could Twitter his or her way there, iPhoning or Same-Timing or Texting or Beaconing or Looped-ing or GPS'ing until arrival.  And sneak in the requisite shake or snack or slice of pizza. 

But alas, high school and university life are decades behind me now, and I doubt very much that a colleague wants to know, in real-time, that "I am stepping away from my desk and will be in the Break Room if you need me."  Or, "I will be in Terminal D at Gate 7 for the next 2 hours if you need me."  Or, worse, "I will be replying to emails for the next hour, please Twitter me and we'll IM!"

I read an interesting article earlier this week, probably the culprit for today's rant.  It described one of the benefits (?) of online presence: "Ambient Awareness."  This idea that we are constantly aware of others' comings and goings and, as a result, when we see them -- we're largely 'up to speed!'


I'm not sure if I like that.

After all, part of the fun of reconnecting with an old friend, a former colleague, or a long-ago client is the very process of catching-up.  The inquiry.  The, "So, what have you been up to these past eight years?"  That DIALOGUE is presumably diminished by ambient awareness. 

I can only imagine the current 'catching-up.'  It would go something like this: "So, what have you been up to?  Oh, wait.  Don't tell me.  I know.  We're done here.  Great seeing you.  Thanks for meeting me.  Check please!"

Hmmmm.  That's a downer.

And yet, here we are.  Carried by the rising tide that raises all boats -- social networking, online presences and identities -- so ubiquitous and 'seemingly required' for any contemporary professional that to lack them, one runs the risk, not of social banishment, but rather, of being forgotten or written off altogether.  "Oh, that hermit.  Gosh, I don't know what happened to him.  He just vanished.  Must have had a meltdown or gone all Howard Hughes on us.  I Googled him and he couldn't be found.  I e-mailed, called, voicemailed, texted, same-time'd, IM'd, Facebook'd, MySpace'd, Linked In, Plaxo'd, even mailed him a paper letter with my handwriting on it and an actual stamp... I did everything short of knocking on the front door of his home or rousing him from his bed, and he was nowhere to be found."

Should that ever happen to me, please don't panic or worry.

I can probably be found in a fetal position around the corner in the living room, hoping against hope that the mustard phone doesn't ring.