Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Um, Do I Know You?

Before the days of social networking and on-line profiles, I frequently failed to correctly correlate people's names to their faces. That's a nice way of saying that I forgot people's names. I'm even worse with faces, actually.

I'm so bad that I couldn't recognize my first cousin at a railroad station. ("He had a hat on," I told my then-husband, who had recognized him immediately despite having seen him only twice before.) Thank goodness most people don't have such poor facial memories, because I can usually find people because the person at the train station is looking at me, and their facial expression shows that they recognized me.

Now, when I forget a name, if I get the context right I can go through the people in my social network, and remind myself of the name. I'm pretty good at remembering names once I've read them in text, meaning my retention has gotten much better. If I'm meeting an old friend, or one I can't quite recall despite having seen him the day before, I can look them up online to remind myself.

It's fun meeting someone for the first time and knowing what they look like, or doing a telephone interview and never meeting them and still knowing what they look like. I mean, it could be potentially fun for people who can remember those types of things. (Yes, I have been unable to recognize someone in a coffee shop despite having looked up their picture online an hour before, too.)

Unfortunately, my poor facial recognition skills have been replaced by non-reciprocal relationship intimacy.

I frequently update my Facebook status, which means that anyone paying attention has a fair idea of what my life probably looks like. I am fairly careful not to write anything too intimate, or anything I don't want my employer to know. However, I do update at least once a day (less on weekends usually), and my profile is public, plus I friend anyone who wants to friend me.

What this means is that I can run into someone at a networking event, and that someone I have never met before could walk up to me and say "Hi, Rebecca! How are the home repairs going?" Now I am totally out of context with the person. I don't know how I know them (I don't), they are into my personal life (because the answer to the question is that I now have a carpet with mint-green paint splashes all over it), and worst of all I don't know their name and don't know that I am not supposed to know it.

They probably know I don't know, or at the very least wouldn't be insulted if they learned I don't know, and now it is too late because instead of giving them a blank look, I did the thing they train marketing people to do, which is too look them in the eye, smile, and confidently launch myself into the conversation. This is what I call non-reciprocal relationship intimacy. If I'm lucky and the context is right, I can exchange business cards with them. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in contexts such as a roller-blading, synagogue, or a supermarket.

I've always been active in online communities, and for at least the last 5 years I have met people who asked me "Are you THE Rebecca Rachmany?" (I wonder why they ask that; there aren't any other Rebecca Rachmanys I know of.) When people asked that I knew they were either members of Digital Eve or Tech-Shoret. Now, if someone asks that, I wonder what happened to their Internet connection. Not only do people not ask, because they've seen my picture, but they also know all about my professional life, and something about my personal life (usually that I am addicted to roller-blading), and they jump right into a conversation.

At the end of the day, despite a bit of discomfort, I've found the status updates have kept my friends closer to me. Often people say they feel they know what is going on in my life even though we see one another infrequently. That's a warming feeling. Even though it often seems nobody notices, people are reading those status updates, and it is creating a bond that wouldn't otherwise be there. So.... what are you doing right now?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Social Networking Birthday

Birthdays have always been inevitable in that you get older whether anyone knows the official date or not. I've tended not to make a big deal over my birthday, since it would mean I would have to remember yours.

Now, birthdays are inevitable in that everybody knows when yours is if you participate in Plaxo, Xing, Facebook, etc., not to mention BirthdayAlarm. Last year, most of my real friends weren't in social networks, so I got a bunch of e-cards and wall posts from people I might even recognize if I ran into them in the mall.

This birthday was the absolute best since the Sesame Street birthday my parents did when I was 5 or 6. I really cannot thank you, my real and virtual friends, enough. It started with dinner with my friend Suzie, went on to warm regards from my roller-blading friends at TAR, waking to virtual greetings, cake and e-cards from my work colleagues, a phone that didn't stop ringing all day, a private guitar concert, and a political meeting with birthday cake and hugs.


If I was waiting for the one day when I would suddenly see the impact of social networking on my real life, yesterday was that day. Thanks, everyone, for making this year's birthday absolutely amazing!!!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Displaying One's Privates

Last week's blog talked about control and this blog is going to talk about why I might want control. Anyone who knows me might get the mistaken impression that I am a control freak. I don't know why that is, but leave it for now.

My friend Terri teaches a college-level constitution course and she tells me it's amazingly difficult to explain to people why you need the 4th amendment. Invariably, one of the students says "If you haven't done anything wrong, what do you care if you are searched?" Fortunately for her, it's almost always a woman, and so Terri gives the standard answer, which is, "Ok, I'm an employee of the State. Empty your purse right now so I can check it out." Although I don't have anything incriminating in my purse, there really is only so much I want the general public to know about my personal hygiene.

The constitution doesn't explicitly protect the right to privacy (for those of us living in a country with a constitution); but even if we didn't have a right to privacy, there are some things that are intrinsically private. Nobody can go inside your mind and find out just how close you got to throwing your 3-year-old out the window, for example. And even a dedicated FB user does not have to fill in the blank for "We hooked up and it was ___" even if we did and it was (or wasn't).

And yet...

When people start to twitter, you get a granular accounting of their life. When people upload photographs with name tags, you know exactly what parties your friends didn't invite you to. When you watch what someone diggs or deliciouses, you start to get an idea of whether they are moonlighting or thinking about a new startup, and in what field. Tracking who is friending who on what network? How about whether your spouse added the "Hot or Not" application or found a new match on the blind date app? (What are married people thinking when they add these apps?)

So about my privacy. I am realizing that some of my casual friends and colleagues could make some pretty good guesses about what I do with my social life, or with my spare time. I'm relatively aware regarding how public this information is, and still, I probably rely more on "people don't have time to snoop" than the reality of how easy it would be for them to do so.

Forget about my right to privacy. What about my right not to know? What if I don't want to know my nephew's hottness rating? Who my mother-in-law is hooking up with? Which of my friends are going out to dinner without me? Who can afford a nicer mobile device than the one I've got?

Yes, having privacy would be great; but increasingly I'm thinking I would just settle for not having a public display of everyone else's private parts.

Control Freak

Ever since social networks showed up, I've lamented that this great technology has simply created a situation where I have multiple profiles in various places, with different collections of contacts. It's a bit of a bizarre world, in fact.

Facebook is a kind of place where I collect pretty much anyone I would say "hi" to, my personal address book which is people I actually contact regularly, Flickr contains only friends who I really want seeing pictures of my kids, etc. If only I could have some control over all of this. So far, I've tried some different solutions, like Plaxo Pulse, Flock, and Gaim/Meebo (for IM consolidation). I spend a lot of time thinking about, configuring and playing around with my system, needless to say. I can justify it because I'm a marketing guy... what's your excuse?

Anyway, the latest thing is Friendfeed. Friendfeed is designed to connect up all these networks. It's kind of like a control panel for my online life, in particular my activities and status. My "friends" can now know what I am doing at any time.

I can't help but feeling, though, that while all of these solutions are helping me consolidate my world, and make it easier to manage, none of them are really giving me "control". Only Plaxo differentiates between business contacts and friends, supposedly with the purpose of allowing you to publish different things to friends or family than you would to business contacts. That's obviously the level of control I want.

However, with Plaxo, I don't really get the control at the end of the day, because the other services don't allow that. Ideally, if this blog had a "public", "business" and "personal" setting, I could have a situation where some posts would be available to the general public, some only to my actual contacts, and some only to my real friends. I should have those same options on Facebook, shared RSS feeds, Flickr photographs, whatever. That would be actual control, rather than what I'm getting today which is more like convenience.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Group Paradigm

Groups are a great thing. Groups give a sense of belonging. Groups are a reference point for getting recommendations and assistance.

Different social networks seem to have different group paradigms, but the underlying assumption of all the social network "groups" seems to be that there is a leader and then there are joiners. The paradigm also seems to assume that the joiners will come on a "pull" basis to check out what is happening with other group members. This paradigm is vastly inferior to a listserv (think yahoogroups) where anyone can post to a group. In fact, it's even inferior to blogs, which I can at least get in my RSS feed. Yes, the truth is that Facebook and Ning groups suck. Now LinkedIn is following suit. I haven't joined a group there yet, but let's just say I don't have any great expectations.

The one real use of Facebook Groups is to find more friends you know and attach names to faces. So you join a group, let's say the Digital Eve Israel Group. Now you can see the actual faces of all the women you've been e-mailing for over 5 years on the list. You can "friend" them and then you seem really well-connected. Yay! Not.

Now if you join the Tel Aviv Rollers group, that is really useful because you see these guys ever week but for the life of you can't remember their names. Yay! Only they look totally different in their pictures than they do in RL and half the time it's no use. But the other half, Yay! Not.

I mean, it's not totally useless, but it's hardly what I would call a "group" in terms of allowing you to communicate with other members of the group. It's amazing that an application that Yahoo has gotten so right for so long is completely mysterious to the builders of social networks. A group is where you communicate among the group, not an announcement list where only the administrator can send something to the group.

On Yahoo or Google groups, anyone can send a message to the whole group. On Yahoo there is a group calendar, so all events are in one location. As a list member, you are informed when anyone uploads files or pictures to the group. This way, whenever anything happens in the group, you, a member, are notified.

On social networks, the groups are just kind of there. You can post on various boards (discussion, wall, etc.), but you aren't informed when someone posts on the board. So if I have a great event going on in Hod Hasharon, and I want to inform the 1000 members of the FB Hod Hasharon group, I can post there, but most of them don't check the discussion groups regularly, so none of them will know. The only person who can actually send to the whole group is the group administrator.

One of my associates, Sharon Weshler, has a group where he sends out weekly announcements of what is happening on the group. You shouldn't have to do that. Your group should inform you in some way, preferably a configurable way. You could choose to get a weekly update from Ning or Facebook, or you could get on-the-fly updates through your RSS reader.

I've administered and led a lot of groups. No matter what group I've been a part of, virtual or real, the power of the group is in the GROUP, not concentrated in the leader. A great leader is one who delegates and leverages the strengths of the group members. So far, none of the community sites I've seen have put together the right paradigm for allowing great leaders to do this.