Tuesday, June 15, 2010

are social media social?

Following Patti Anklam's tweets from the Enterprise 2.0 Conference today, I was surprised by the following question she retweeted from Boris Pluskowski:
"Are people more social now because culture's changed or because technology allows it nowadays?"

That brought me up short. Are we more social now? More social than when? What does social mean in this context? Have we finally transitioned out of the "bowling alone" era? I'm not so sure.

I'm old enough that I can remember the days when co-workers would gladly give you a ride to work when your car was in the shop or feed your cats when you were on a business trip. That sort of social connection stopped sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. There wasn't a clear break. It just sort of happened gradually without our really noticing it. One day I stupidly asked a co-worker who passed right by the car dealer where I went for service if he could pick me up on his way to work. You'd have thought I asked for his first born child. No, it wasn't just me. A whole industry of car rentals that bring the car to you grew up and flourished. Same thing with the pet care while you're on business trips. Nobody in their right mind would ask a co-worker or a neighbor to look after their pets. You pay a pet sitter. Period. Has this changed? I'm not seeing it.

As high-tech (as we used to call it) began to die out in Massachusetts, many of my closest friends moved to Silicon Valley, Seattle, or other points west. We used email and sometimes the telephone to keep in touch. With the rise of social media, we can and do interact more online and catch up with each other more frequently. So maybe in that sense we are more social than we were in the 1990s. Technology has certainly made it easier to exchange status updates, photos, and links. So, why does it feel like there's still something missing?

I think what the enterprise is looking for from social media is collaboration not community. Technology has certainly made collaboration in the workplace easier. In that sense the workplace is more social. However, just because applications can exchange data more easily and workers can Tweet or IM or whatever instead of the hated email doesn't mean it's become any easier to create a workplace where humans relate to each other as people.

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