I’ve only been on a submarine once, but i remember it well because of the bump. When i first climbed down through the hatch, it was a totally alien environment. Grey, smelling of diesel, pipes everywhere, metal, cold, cramped, muffled sounds. I walked with a stoop, moving carefully, aware of not wanting to knock anything. Then, inevitably, i hit my head.
The thing about new environments is that they are strange. I can run around my house with my eyes shut. I know where every corner and angle is. I never hit my head. But new environments are different, unfamiliar and strange. We have to learn our way around.
Google+ is the latest social media phenomena, a (some may say strange) diversion from ‘search engine’ to ’email’ to ‘social space’. It’s new, it’s shiny and it’s rather odd. I’m not so concerned here with what it does, how ‘circles’ work, or how many people i can engage with. I’m more interested in charting the personal experiences i’ve had as i’ve learnt my way around. How i’ve tried to do this without hitting my head.
I would say that i’m an experienced social media navigator. I mean, i’m not Magellan or Columbus, but i certainly match Ray Mears. I’m confident with navigating virtual environments and know how to escape if i find myself in trouble, so the basics of navigation do not bother me. I won’t hit my head here.
No, these days the risky sharp corner is how information is controlled. You only have to look at the recent fuss around Facebook (again) where privacy controls hit the headlines. Control of personal data is the big risk with social media. It is, by it’s nature, a space that relies on personal disclosure in what may be a very public space. It relies on it’s own, often misunderstood or misrepresented, conceptions of ‘public’, ‘private’, ‘true’ and ‘made up’. What you see is not real, although it may feel that way. Walls that look solid may in fact be transparent.
Control of who can see what is the big unknown, and my biggest fear as i walked around Google+. What am i sharing and with who? At a simple level, if i put someone in a ‘circle’, do they know what i’ve called that circle? Is a friend going to be offended if i put them in the ‘work friend’ circle? And what if i post to my ‘friend’ circle: am i sure that it’s not visible to work people?
This ties in with the notion of formal and informal spaces that we’ve talked about widely before. Formal spaces are defined, come with their own channels of communication and sets of rules and behaviours that are acceptable. Work is a formal space where you don’t swear (often).
Informal spaces are social, unmoderated, free and collaborative. But Google+ crosses the borders, knocks down the walls. Or rather, it allows some of the walls, some of the time, to be transparent. This is alarming at first glance.
Walking around the submarine, i did at least have the chance to spot a sharp corner before i hit it, but in social spaces, the corners are sometimes invisible. Clearly we are adaptable creatures, able to moderate and change our behaviours to fit any space, but it takes time to learn it and it’s increasingly hard for people to enter the space.
We run the risk of developing a two tier ‘engaged’ and ‘disengaged’ population, and this may not run along the age lines that we expect.
Social media are enabling technologies, but we need to tread with caution and engage with individuals in safe ways. Especially as we incorporate these concepts further into our working and professional lives.