A reporter walks onto Facebook and comes away not understanding social media.

November 30, 2008

In a couple pieces I read in today’s Boston Globe, writers talked about social media tools in the same way in which reporters – me included – pontificate about other subjects.

A recent feature I wrote for Gatehouse Media allowed me to instruct readers on how to shop for their next television set and what they should know about the pending digital conversion in mid February. But the only reason I could act as an expert was because I had done my homework. In at least one of the two articles I read today, the author didn’t seem to have spent a lot of time with the technology he was explaining.

Specifically, Facebook. The piece – Perspective – in the Boston Globe Magazine, was written by staff writer Neil Swidey. His contention, based on his own experience and an interview with a Stanford lab director who has a book on Facebook coming out, is that once you’ve made contact with someone on the site, you’re forever linked.

Swidey also says “Facebook can also hamper our ability to manages social contacts.”

My problem with the column is that it is as superficial as the media tool it purports to explain.

Facebook, IMO, is a place where you can (but don’t have to) connect with people. It’s a place where you can (but don’t have to) pay attention to other people who have sought your friendship via this new media tool. And Facebook is a place where you can (but don’t have to) spend/waste a lot of time.

I’ll even say that Facebook can be valuable in maintaining connections on a social and even a professional level. That’s where it stops. Facebook is only a tool. Just as Instant Messaging is as intrusive or benign as you want it to be, you need to maintain and take control for your actions and interactions with the people who are listed as your friends.

Why isn’t there such angst about a very similar social media tool – LinkedIn? It’s because there are societal and professional norms in place. People have taken responsibility to police the people with whom they connect. You can do the same thing on Facebook, but many people choose not to.

When trying to explain the two sites/tools to a business colleague the other day, I said, “LinkedIn is for the people with whom you want to have a professional relationship with. Facebook is for bar talk, sharing gossip, personal news and arranging parties.”

If you don’t like someone, block or unfriend them. Don’t feel, as Swidey says, “That’s not the way it works here.”

That’s EXACTLY how it works here. Take some responsibility for your own destiny and follow and interact with the people you choose. If you don’t have time for someone, don’t pay attention to them. The beauty of Facebook is that you can do that without blatantly hurting anyone’s feelings.

Finally, to the Stanford lab director’s contention (his name is B.J. Fogg) that “If I say yes to someone I haven’t talked to in 20 years, it dilutes my ability to create tighter relationships with those who really matter to me” I say you’re out of your tree. The two are mutually exclusive. If I say hi to someone on the street, it doesn’t preclude my ability to say hi to and even have a long conversation with the next person I see on the street.

I hope Fogg’s book has a bit more insight than Swidey was able to glean for his column.

And like Swidey, I don’t think that my opinions of Facebook – or of Swidey’s one column and Fogg’s misperceptions – should hinder my relationships with people I see as friends. If you’re on my list, you already know how I roll.

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