I'd like to pick up a little where I left off in my last posting on social networking. In that post, I was highlighting a post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum on how he prefers to interact in online environments. Or more precisely, how he prefers not to get too deeply involved.
Wayne's points are well thought-out and reasonable. And a kind of challenge to those that want to build online communities -- the people they probably need to listen to the most when they are designing their communities are people like him rather than just people in the social media echo chamber.
Now, of course Wayne got a lot of "try it, you'll like it" responses to his post, both in the comments on my blog and in comments at his as well.
Not surprisingly, he's crafted a well thought-out reply:
The "don't knock it 'til you try it response" is problematic for many reasons (not that I was knocking anything). To echo one person who commented on my blog, I haven't tried cannibalism or genital piercing either, but I don't want to. The response also smacks of an irritating paternalism, as if a grown man who's reasonably bright and educated is like a child who needs to be told to eat his vegetables. "How do you know you don't like cauliflower until you've tried it?" Not being a child, but instead a rather large man, there's a temptation to suggest the inquisitor take the cauliflower and insert it somewhere very uncomfortable, like the back seat of a Volkswagen. Mostly, though, the response is flawed because it assumes that any given social software application is somehow sui generis, when in fact they are all just variations on a theme. Twitter, for example, is analogous to all sorts of other things, and even if it weren't it's not like it's some difficult concept to understand.
There is in fact an analogous service I have tried: Facebook. I've been on for two or three years and find myself going to it less and less frequently. It's been okay, but nothing especially life-changing. I've been in contact with people I haven't seen since high school, which has been pleasant. I've played a few games of Scrabble. I know some people use Twitter and their Facebook status update the same way, and one thing I've never done is update my status. I've never told people what I was having for lunch, or posted a Youtube video of some funny antic, or tried to come up with a clever epigram or aphorism to show people how interesting I am.
Why? Mainly because I don't think anyone would care, just as I'm interested in very few of other people's postings. On a moment to moment basis, I, like most people, am just not very interesting. I'm not necessarily boring, and I do think I have my good qualities, but I really can't figure out what I could say in a few characters that would be worth reading. Writing nothing worth reading may not bother most people, but I try to keep an audience in mind and not bore you too much.
The core of what Wayne is saying is this: "I just know what I want to read and how I want to spend my time and interact with others."
If you build it, what if they just don't come. What if they have no interest in what you have to offer? Most attempts to build the next "Facebook for Scientists" or new plans to "engage the undergrad population via blogs and Twitter and Second Life" run up against exactly what Wayne is talking about.
The challenge isn't that the people in the target groups are Luddites with no interest in technology or with connecting online. it's that they either already have social networking infrastructure (online or offline) that works for them or they're just not as interested in networking as you would hope or like to believe.
It seems to me that one possibility if we want to engage these groups, is that we have to figure out where they already are and how we can fit into and improve that rather than try and build something completely new that we'll then try and entice everyone to join.