In typical cranky geek fashion, PC Mag columnist and industry pundit, John C. Dvorak, recently wrote an article about the fragility of social networking in which he claims the value of these networks is transitory, they aren’t real communities, an no one should take them seriously. In other words, all social networks are just passing fads – a fun place to hang out until the next big thing arrives.
In the article, Dvorak, who announced he just joined Twitter (@therealdvorak), recalls one of the original social networks, PARTI, circa 1980, which was more like a newsgroup than a chat room, he says. The network fell apart when one of its members was outed as an everyday criminal and wound up in jail. Because her online persona was much different than who she really was, the network was divided by those supporting her, believing that they knew her, and those who believed the truth that was being broadcast on the news about her illegal activities. The network soon fell apart due to the rift this caused in the community.
Although perhaps an extreme example, there is something to be said about the dichotomy between a person’s public persona used online and who they “really” are. Many people’s online self is only a fraction of who they are when they log off. For example, online you could be a social media addict, blog reader/writer, and an activity community participant whose never shy to be vocal about your opinions, but offline, you could be a relatively private person who is more comfortable with a small group of close friends than you are with a big crowd, and who would rather curl up with a good book than attend a large party.
That’s not to say that everyone “fakes it” online, but the very nature of the internet can highlight specific aspects of your personality. By getting heavily involved in one community, you can get “stuck” there, consuming and contributing to this one niche at the expense of your other interests. There are only so many hours in the day, so if your favorite subject is, oh…say, technology, you may dwell in the tech communities 75% of your time and only focus on your other interests 25% of your time when online. But in the offline world, your friends may know of all your interests, not just tech, and so, in a sense, they know you better.
How you’re perceived online may not even be entirely in your control. As Jim Smoot notes in his article “You Are Who People Perceive You Are,”: if someone perceives you as something, right or wrong, that’s what you are in their eyes. If the community wants to peg you as a thought leader in their niche, then you become a thought leader in their niche.
So perhaps Dvorak has a point. However, to call out online communities, such as Twitter, as “pretend” communities is a mistake. Whether it’s Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, bebo, FriendFeed, or anywhere else you spend your time, these communities are places you can find others who share your interests and where real connections can, in fact, be made. And when the next big thing arrives, you can re-join your friends over there.