Monday, February 2, 2009

Perils of Online Community

Online communities are lauded these days. Applications like facebook, twitter, myspace and friendster are seen as the new way to create and maintain one's personal social community. With these new tools people can expand their community to hundreds of friends, sharing information like never before. Can't be anything but good, say our online gurus.

Maybe online communities aren't so perfect after all. As our Web 2.0 communities grow and the amount of time we spend online grows with them, many people are spending less time with their close friends and family. Instead of going to a park with your close ones, doing dinner with your family, or strengthening friendships via common interest and common activities, the new online community leads us to spend endless hours viewing flickr photos, writing facebook wall posts, and yes, writing and commenting on blog articles. At first it is no big deal. But slowly, one starts to notice sometimes we're spending more time with our friends online than offline.

And instead of focusing our quality time with a small handful of close friends, we spread our net wide, communicating with hundreds of "friends", many of whom we've never even met. In effect, we're watering down our social community, trading personal flesh on flesh relationships in exchange for hundreds of pixel images, superfluous comments/posts, and short bios of people we once knew a long time in a galaxy far far away.

Is this the future of our communities?


Theodora Lamb said...

Where do I start?!?

First off.....

Prove it. I want to see it - the evidence that shows our friends are spending more time on-line than walking in the park. I would argue that people who were never inclined to go for a "walk in the park" in the first place aren't likely to start now.


Social media and Web 2.0 (both of them buzz words, yes, I know) are designed to compliment and aid us in our day to day communications, not replace face-to-face interaction. Here's an excellent example: I have a coffee date planned this week with a girl I haven't seen since highschool. Facebook brought us together. Do I connect face-to-face with everyone on Facebook? No. Is the time I spend replying to a thread, arranging a date and time for the coffee replace the time I spend with people? No. If fact, Facebook is the means through which I will enjoy even more face-to-face time with someone I thought I had lost.


And I've mentioned this in an earlier post... Social Media has opened up a whole generation to e-democracy. Obama's campaign is the best example of this to date.

An excellent article that supports this:

Everything in moderation. Practice balance. Let social media aid you with your relationships. To use and celebrate it as a helpful tool does not mean you are any less of a people person. Rather, it reflects your desire to expand your own community, both on and off line. The two are connected. And yes, there are people out there that do not practice balance. But nothing worth keeping comes easy. Social Media is a gift, one we need to continue to explore and use with care.

Theodora Lamb said...

.... by the way, great use of a blog to suggest Social Media is a threat to on the 'gumboot' we like to stir up trouble!

Kurt Heinrich said...

that's how I roll!

Happy you see the irony.

Godfrey von Nostitz-Tait said...

Using Facebook, and other social media platforms, in my experience begins as an addictive acitivity- a time sucking pastime where not just face to face interactions fall by the wayside, but other pursuits as well. This is echoed by many people i know.

Balance is key in this as with all things. No doubt. Awareness that Facebook is most productive and of value when used as tool for getting together with people in real time, and less as a platform for hanging out online through vapid wall posts or superficial chats. Call me old fashioned, but I would agree that Facebook is best as a spring board for achieving, enhanced, expanded networks in the real world and not the electronic one. We twenty somethings might realize this, but are the youngun's achieving balance in the 2.0 world. Call me crusty on this one, but plenty of youngsters spend too much time online in an increasingly virtual community as it is and, yes, not enough time in the park.

Theodora Lamb said...

Really, Godfrey?! I mean really? You're telling me that you and these so called "friends" (tweens aside) allow themselves to be swayed by their time on the web, opting for Facebook over book clubs and dinner parties?

Your friend, Theo

John Horn said...

Kurt Buddy. Probably Godfrey.

I don't know where to begin. Your words/rant is from the likes of "The Dumbest Generation" and other psychological "experts" of Bauerlein's ilk. So, do online community's, as you suggest, put us in peril? Let's find out!

Recently, Don Tapscott, a professor of strategic management at U of T's Rotman School of Business, and CEO of nGenera (a consulting firm) conducted the single biggest study of Millennials or the "Net Generation" anyone anywhere has ever done. Here is what Tapscott and nGenera (and, apparently, Theo Lamb) found:

- The majority (in the high eightieth percentile) of NetGeners prefer face-to-face interaction; not only that, young people continue to cite having a smaller "intimate" circle of friends as part of a much larger, interconnected social network.
- This is the most engaged generation out there; whether it's politics, world poverty or human rights, no group of people is more active than those born after 1980. This is reflected in volunteering/working/studying abroad in the developing world, not to mention the massive political engagement in Hussein Obama's run for President. Social media and online communities are the mediums that allowed this to happen.
- This is the smartest generation out there; since the 1970s, the average US IQ score has been steadily increasing by just over a point per year. Moreover, social media has allowed the information that we peruse to be more democratic, personalized and meaningful. Today, people actually read more than ever before; they just don't read books, let alone "the classics." Check this out: If anything, education is having trouble keeping pace; at university, we educators need to learn to be students just as much as teachers.

The two biggest trends I took from Tapscott's study were these: instant gratification and personalization. I'll have to play the professional card here, too; my students' behaviour (all 56 of 'em) fly in stark contrast to what you're saying, Kurt. They are stronger, better and faster than their parents. They can do three things at once, and do them well. They play intramural volleyball, hockey and go climbing together (in person, not online). Their school work involves collaborative, face-to-face group work. My students have used social media and online communities to start NGOs, build schools in Ethiopia, collaborate on uber-tough assignments, and one guy is even working with web developers on two social media startups (don't be surprised if Facebook gets eclipsed soon!).

From me, they want answers right away (sometimes they send me resumes to edit and advice on cold calling, job offers or their clothes while in class) and they want their classes to have a personalized instructional element. There's no way to accomplish this without supplementing our face-to-face community with an online one. Rather than erode the personal, social media and Web 2.0 bolster it. Except Twitter, which is crap and totally reflective of the dark side of instant gratification and narcissism. I'll give you that one.

The biggest problem of all, though, is that so many of us haven't caught up with the leaders of the NetGeneration. We armchair criticize and focus on the most narcissistic and apathetic (newsflash, there have always been dicks and douches and dweebs to balance amazing leaders - this is nothing new, even if the medium is new). We should be focusing on how social media makes our community better.

Mostly, Kurt, is that you need to whip out some "findings" to support your hollow, off-the-cuff, whimsical argument. It's a good one, sure. And it's definitely not a new one. And it's baseless and riddled with more holes than the delicious Swiss cheese I had on my bagel this morning. Perhaps you, my friend, need to re-conceptualize community. Because millions - if not billions - of people have. And they're way ahead of you.


Addendum: hey, if this was a clever ploy to try and get me to join Facebook, well, I've honestly never been closer than right now. Well played, sir...

Theodora Lamb said...

The thing about twitter.... is it shouldn't be blown up anymore than what it is... it's a text message you can show to more than one person. It won't end poverty but it will let you write about it instantly in less than 140 characters.

Godfrey von Nostitz-Tait said...

Many smart people waste too much time on these media instead of expanding their minds in other ways, but yes, before that there was TV and before that there was cave painting, so what's changed? Everything, nothing? Kudos to your students, John, but some of the most impressive minds i know, some in their thirties and some in their teens, spend almost zero time on these networks and still get a lot accomplished and a lot networked.

To argue that those who don’t buy into the truly great productive power of these networks, simply haven’t “caught up” or are “being left behind” is to imply that these networks hold the key to progress and enlightenment and older forms, well, just don’t. These tools are handy and are transforming us in many ways, but as you also demonstrated in your findings, John, whether we use them or not, we remain in many ways the same. Thankfully.

Godfrey von Nostitz-Tait said...

Also, John, thanks for sharing Tapscott's findings - empirical evidence that the 2.0 generation interacts much the same way as previous one has is comforting. But how can he confidently claim a direct causal connection between social media and the rise of an unprecedently 'multi-tasky, multifacety' generation? I'm still skeptical.

John Horn said...

One more thing that hasn't been mentioned yet.


In this respect, our online communities are quite troublesome, especially when critics and proponents of Mellennials can agree that this generation - our generation - has no shame. Pardon the hyperbole, but you get my point. For this generation, there is little to separate the public and the private. Especially when it comes to social media.

Here's just one example. A 2008 survey by Job Postings magazine ( found that over 83% of employers checked out their prospective employees' online profiles through Google, Facebook and MySpace. And here's the kicker, 43% of candidates were eliminated from competition because of what recruiters found on the internet.

When Michelle and I were examining the site-traffic of the Gumboot, we found that one person found us by Googling "Kurt Heinrich - Vancouver". Once you're out there, man, you're out there.

As you will learn in the upcoming installment of "Learning from Pirate Communities" (it will be about branding), documenting your naked team-goat-riding adventures might seem like a cool idea when you're balls-out hammered. Web 2.0-ing it might seem like a good one, too. It's not.

Mr. Tapscott outlines that, when it comes to privacy, the nose-thumbing from NetGeners is a serious problem. Andrew Jackson was the last naked goat-rider to become President of the USA (no matter what rumours are out there about Teddy Roosevelt, they're not true). And there isn't going to be another one.

So, be sure to keep focused and up-to-date on managing your personal brand, everyone. Because, whether you like it or not, everyone's watching.

Kurt Heinrich said...

hmm. I wonder who was searching for me....