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The Facebook Promise: Cool Or Just Cold

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Do you Facebook? Why do you Facebook? How many friends do you have? How many Facebook friends do you have? Is there a difference? Should there be a difference?

We could have quite a conversation on these four questions, if only we could actually converse. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and all the other "social networking" sites might be signs that we aren't talking much anymore, or, worse yet, could be contributing factors to the absence of meaningful communication.

Since blogging doesn't let us have a real conversation, let's tackle this as best we can, and you can respond with your thoughts and perspectives via the comments section which follows.

The good news about "comments" is that you can, well, comment. The bad news is that the blog-comment-respond process tends to move us more toward statements and away from inquiry and genuine interchange. For example, if we were in an actual conversation right now, you could ask a simple question: "what's the difference? What do you mean?" And I could respond, and we could wind up following any number of threads, playing off each other, going deeper into the underlying substance and meaning of our interaction.

However, we aren't in conversation. We may not even be in communication (more on that difference in a bit).

So that leaves me with writing something, trying to make a point or establish a line of thought by a series of statements. You get to respond via comments, and comments tend to be the same thing in reverse - since you can't converse, you are likely to write something back ranging from agreement to disagreement, typically in the form of statements about your point of view.

And so we exchange points of view, arguments, agreements or disagreements, never really knowing if either of us has truly understood or connected with the other. Sure, we have the kind of connection indicated by responses exchanged, but we never really know how well or how deeply we are connecting with one another.

So where am I going with this and what does it have to do with Facebook or social networking? Glad I asked!

Facebook, according to the Facebook corporate page, "is a social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers. The company develops technologies that facilitate the sharing of information through the social graph, the digital mapping of people's real-world social connections."

So, Facebook helps people communicate (more efficiently) and share information through real world social connections. Hmmmm. Let's look at those two distinctions.

Does Facebook really help you communicate at all, much less more efficiently? That depends on what you mean by communication.

One definition of communication has to do with the exchange of messages or information. Facebook is pretty good at that. You can post anything from what you are doing now, to what books you have been reading, to where you are going to dinner tonight. All simple messages to be sure, some more informative than others. You can join a group or invite others to join yours and blast each other with announcements or pleas for help. You can put up little notes on someone's wall and you can send them virtual hugs and and and.

Another definition of communication suggests greater depth, having to do with establishing a meaningful interaction with another, leading to greater understanding and increased intimacy. How does Facebook fare on this definition? Depends on what you mean by understanding and intimacy. I'll come back to understanding and intimacy later, along with a deeper exploration of what communication means.

Then there's the part about Facebook facilitating the exchange of information through the "social graph" and "digital mapping" of "real world social connections." Now doesn't that just warm the cockles of your real world heart?

If you are an engineer, social graphs and digital maps probably seem very cool, somewhat akin to a pathway to cyber-nirvana. Graphing and mapping relationships and connections is so much less messy than actual human to human interaction. Part of me can really appreciate this piece of the puzzle. Human interaction can be quite messy.

However, this is a key part of the Facebook promise that if not understood could lead you away from "cool" and over toward "cold."

To the extent that you are using Facebook to create networks (another one for the engineers amongst us), then it's pretty cool. That assumes by network you mean something that builds connections between people who share interests and information (books, movies, cool I-Phone applets, etc) or creates introductions to others who might have information, resources or references that you might need (getting that virus off the computer or helping you find a job).

Most of us like the idea of getting references from friends when trying to find anything from a good tech to a reliable plumber. Facebook can do this pretty well.

However, what's up with this notion of "friends?" Is a friend simply someone in a "social graph" or "digital map," someone who might be able to refer you to a good techie or plumber? Or is a friend someone with whom you can develop deeper levels of communication, intimacy and understanding?

Do intimacy and understanding even matter?

As you can readily tell, I'm setting the table here for a deeper discussion about what connection and communication mean. What does it mean to have a friend? How are real world friends and connections different from cyber world friends and connections? How can we bridge the two? How can social networking help build the kind of intimacy, communication and understanding that sits underneath the frenetic pace that seems to characterize life in the early 21st century?

Or does this even matter?

I'd love to hear from you either via the comments section which follows or via email. If you have thoughts, questions or suggestions, please let me know. Of course, you can always post something on my wall or we could even create a Facebook group about building intimacy and connection using Facebook.

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You can find out more about Russell Bishop at http://www.lessonsinthekeyoflife.com. Contact Russell at: russell@lessonsinthekeyoflife.com

The author of Lessons in the Key of Life, Russell is an Educational Psychologist, professional life coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara California.

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