Story posted March 01, 2009
Author: Alison Bennie, Editor
Chances are, whatever line of work you are in, you haven’t escaped hearing the term “social networking.” And, as with many buzzwords, you’ve probably learned what to call it sometime after you had already begun doing it. Apparently, all day, every day—whether at work or on vacation, sitting in a conference room or an armchair—many of us are sending out 140- character messages to our “followers,” sharing videos and articles and Web sites with hundreds of people at once, declaring ourselves fans of bacon or “This American Life” or Shania Twain—essentially putting our lives and selves online. While we do all that, we are keeping up with all that same information for, on average, 150 others.
Like everyone else, I have been doing this, too. When I open up my Facebook page, I have the sense that I am hosting a party to which I’ve invited a very odd cast of characters. There are current colleagues, Bowdoin alumni, both my present boss and my boss from twenty years ago, family members near and far, high school and college classmates I knew well or not at all, some of our children’s friends (who would do well to remember that people like me get a “feed” every time they post a photo), and even our dog Noah.As much as I think it is good to mix up your guest list from time to time, I can’t imagine doing this in real life.
The value of this kind of networking is real. I read recently that the surge in job losses has led to a boost in sign-ups on the business networking site, LinkedIn. When times are tough, we look to each other, and there are digital ways to do that. After years of reading articles in parenting magazines telling us to limit our kids’ screen time, lest they become socially isolated, it now seems that the only real concerns are ones of physical inactivity. But there are challenges to this phenomenon, too—how do you redefine intimacy when so many people know so much about you? Who is special and what do you tell them about yourself that the world doesn’t know? We all have heard the cautionary tales about the Internet being one big public billboard, privacy settings or not, but there is a deeper question, too: what happens to our sense of identity when the private self and the public self are the same?
And I have an even bigger question. This year is my 25th college reunion. With all the small talk already covered through our virtual conversations, what could possibly be left to say? I would worry about this more if I had a different job. I know that alumni magazines have been practicing social networking for a very long time, and they have proven that the more we read of each other in class notes, the more we feel connected to our class and college, and the more we actually want to come back to campus and visit in person. So,“tweet” your heart out—the conversation may digress, escalate, or stall, but it always continues.