Saturday, July 26, 2008

Time better wasted...

I have had myspace and facebook accounts for some time now. However, I never really saw them as more than time wasters. I didn't spend much time on either and the time I did spend was no more useful than surfing the web for celebrity news. Then, quite at random, I read a piece in the New York Times by Luis Suarez who works for IBM. In "I Freed Myself From E-Mail’s Grip" Suarez describes social networking sites as tools for more efficient communication. Inspired by his article, I made a decision. I gave up on myspace and decided I would experiment for some time to see if facebook could become a useful tool in my communication life.

If you are not familiar with sites like myspace and facebook, they are a little hard for me to describe. There is a pretty in depth article at wikipedia, but it might confuse you more. Perhaps I can best describe what these sites do by explaining how facebook has become useful to me. Friendships in my generation are a little different than those of my father's. My father knows where most of the people he grew up with are. They very often live in the same house the grew up in. If they don't, my father usually knows where they went. My childhood friends are scattered all over the country. I also left my hometown at 17 and went to college, where I made some more friends, who then scattered all over the country. I then got a job in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania where I made more friends, then Allentown, Pennsylvania, then Austin, Texas, then I made friends in seminary, then I started working in churches which caused me to make friends and then move. You may get the point that I have made friends all over the country, who have continued to spread all over the country and it is really difficult to stay connected with all these people. Standard mail doesn't work, just like my friends, my address changes every couple or few years. Email doesn't even help. People change email when they change jobs or when spam overwhelms their account.

This is where services like facebook come in. Facebook, like some of the others, works by collecting "friends." You can find friends by joining networks or groups based on location or the University you attended or even some interest (like one of mine, Equal Exchange for people interested in fairly traded coffee.) This isn't necessarily a search for new friends, it is a way to sort of round up the friends you already have. One of the ways I constantly reconnect with friends is through a feature called "People you may know" which basically looks at your friends and see who they are friends with. If two of your friends share the same friend, the service thinks you might know that person as well.

Okay, I don't want to go too deeply into how this all works but instead talk about how it works for me. Facebook allows me to collect my friends in one large social space. I am not required to interact with them on any sort of regular basis. But if I do want to communicate with someone, I don't need to find their email address, I can just send them a message. Also, if I want to let all my friends to know something, that becomes really easy. I can share photos will all my friends (and only people who I have selected as my friends) and not have to email them out to everyone.

Facebook also has a neat feature called "News Feed" where I can see little updates on all my friends, like if they upload new pictures or change status or just decide to post something about their current state of mind. Friends can also post event invitations, for instance, to let them all know that they are going to see Batman.

I realize that for some, the idea of online social networking just doesn't fly. It may seem to impersonal or just another time drain. But I am pretty convinced for now. I think communication is in a rapid period of evolution. I was in on the ground floor of email even before college. When it was new, it worked to well. If I knew someone who had email, I knew that this could be a primary means of communication. Now, I have friends with 4 email accounts, all so overfull that they may not see, let alone have a chance to respond to mine. I never was much into instant messaging, but many found it as an instant way to cut through the clutter. Text messaging is very effective, but I only enlist it with my closest friends. The church used to communicate primarily through newsletters, now it is web and email and weblogs. I imagine, in a few years, these will all be obsolete. We have the technology to communicate instantly with people from anywhere on the globe, the technology is there to make it happen, but the technology to help make it not overwhelming, is still in progress.


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