Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Yes, It IS Big News

It's interesting watching the comments fly about Microsoft purchasing a stake in Facebook... and now just a couple days later, Google announcing OpenSocial. Despite some cynics, I contend that this is a big deal.

Social networking technology is finally catching up to a pent-up demand to satisfy the desire to connect with other people, despite living in a harried and fractured world. Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and others have each addressed part of that need while at the same time, segmenting our lives further by remaining as entirely separate silos.

I'm not alone in feeling like it's crazy-making to keep up profiles across several different networks... or to choose to focus on just one or two to the exclusion of others.

People of all demographics want to feel connected. The younger folks, the young at heart, people who want to stay connected with them, and people who don't want to be left behind while the hiring game changes, all want to use technology to do this. That's a pretty sizeable group of people when you start to add it all up.

Most importantly, these people want social networking to make life easier and better, not harder, and the technology is finally beginning to catch up to that.

Of course, it mostly starts out with forging virtual connections with people we already know and care about in real life. As that capability matures, however, there is the capacity to learn more about each other than we often learn IRL, and to learn more about people we didn't even know before. So yes, these kinds of moves by the giants of the industry definitely could have an impact on quality of life and understanding fellow humans.

More than a decade ago, back when most of the folks I knew didn't even know what the internet was (including many of the geeks I worked with), and only a handful were just starting to get the idea about email, and the best form of electronic connectedness most of us had was through electronic bulletin boards of which only a handful were connected to each other... Way back then, Howard Rheingold wrote The Virtual Community, and it really spoke to me. I tried speaking to him too, but that didn't really go anywhere at the time.

Between then and now, the Internet became more widely accessible (and I only had to suffer through ten years' or so worth of withdrawal, after leaving school), started to offer more to the average person, and connecting electronically has become second nature to most of us. Between then and now, I and about 150 other women and some of their partners came together through the internet in support of one another throughout the duration of our pregancies - and our group was just one of many.

Though I can't speak to the others, I can say that our group is still going strong nearly a dozen years later, and I'm sure that between us, we can name every one of the people who was ever part of our clan (plus most of their kids and partners and a lot of other relevant details about their lives), even if they're not still an integral part of our thriving community today.

We're very close-knit and the connection we share electronically has been a real important part of our day-to-day support through pregnancy, child-rearing, trying to being good partners in our relationships and how we show up in life and work in the broadest possible terms. We help each other maintain sanity, offer differing points of view for consideration, celebrate successes and provide plenty of {{virtual hugs}} during times of grief and challenge.

If you want an example of how people can use virtual communities to improve quality of life and understanding of fellow human beings, just ask me about the November Moms of '96. And make sure you have a lot of time to stay and get the answer.

How will this new wave of technology-aided and abetted community shake out? I'm not all that sure yet - but I can tell you that I'm mostly excited about it. The news of the past week makes a lot of new things possible. That's great news for those of us with social networking on the brain. It's also great news for Startup Weekend participants or anyone else tapping into the value of community on the web.

In the meantime it's probably a good idea to go back and read some of Howard's thoughts on the downside of virtual communities - while the examples are perhaps dated, he accurately predicted a lot of what we've seen since his original writing of it all and the risks that haven't already been realized are still out there. It's probably a good idea to spend at least some time thinking about how to mitigate those risks and to keep thinking about how to realize the full potential of this notion of a virtual community that complements, not replaces, the real thing.

You probably have thoughts on the matter. I'd love to hear stories, predictions, concerns - whatever. Send them to me at and help design the future.

What does community mean to me and how do I express that in my life and work?