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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Deep Thoughts about Social Networking

Mark Zuckerburg's estimated net worth: $13.5 billion.  Twitter's estimated valuation: between $8-$10 billion.  Social networking is a huge deal in 2011.  What used to be really difficult - reaching out to a complete stranger and striking up a conversation - can now be accomplished with a click of the "Add as Friend" or "Follow" button.  We can easily end a romantic relationship by changing our Facebook status to "Single" which sends a little broken heart icon to the news feed of all of our friends. The dreaded phone call to a stranger, loved one, or the credit card company can in many cases be avoided altogether with a Facebook message, text, or email.

From my earliest memories to my first full-time job, I remember being afraid not of strangers in general but of people older and seemingly wiser than me (i.e. teachers, bosses, and public figures).  There were rules to follow everywhere that the adults in the room enforced at every turn.  Making a phone call or raising a hand to ask a question of anyone older than me seemed like an exercise in humiliation.  Seniority meant authority.

Today, Facebook, Twitter, and the web of ideas shared along the internet are changing the rules.  To the people growing up in this digital age, the power and ease of creating relationships will seem natural.  For those of us born in the 80s and decades before, we are entering new relationship-building territory inhabited by adolescents. In many ways they are better communicators, even if they write "r" instead of "are" and "2" instead of "two or to or too."  Children born today have a cell phone in their hand when they start to crawl.  Their fingers know the keypad for sending text messages like we would type in our favorite channels on the television remote or tune into our favorite radio stations without thinking, except the tv and radio personalities couldn't hold a two-way conversation with us instantaneously.

Teachers, bosses and public figures used to have all the power, answers, and attention.  No longer.  Attention is now given to the relationship builders, to the sharers of information.  What does power and attention mean in a 140-character, youtube video, camera-ridden world?  It means the end of 45-minute lectures in school.  The end of private board room meetings.  The end of hierarchy and the destruction of ideological borders.  Not a superficial undertaking by any means, even if it is largely being driven by cat videos and live streams of 140-character thoughts about local sports teams.  Schools, companies, and governments will have to completely restructure their networks to include everyone in conversation.  The power and attention now lies in the hands of the many, not the few.

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