I was at my optometrist’s office the other morning. Discovering my interest in social media, he mentioned to me that he was on the committee working to develop social networking tools within the American Optometric Association (AOA). I commented to him that I thought it would be an important milestone when optometrists began to connect to one another on non-optometric topics. And he replied, “Oh, no. This is a professional network. We don’t want people saying what they had for breakfast.” So, I tried to clarify, suggesting that an important element of community building involves a diversity of relationships. And he replied, “Oh, sure. We’re building that in, but we’re going to have somebody monitor usage so that people don’t post what they’re having for breakfast. This is not Facebook.” To which I replied… well, nothing. Because I couldn’t articulate my response. (But, perhaps here, I can.)
While I imagine most optometrists don’t care a whole lot for what their colleagues ate that morning, the first thing that came to mind is the wonderful metaphor recently conveyed by Deanna Zandt that social media is like a pointillist painting, with each self-revealing statement contributing another point in portraying one’s identity.
And I tried to think more deeply about why I thought my optometrist’s attitude was short-sighted (or, at least, un-networky) in terms of making the most of the opportunity to nurture bonding social capital within this professional group.
- Leaving the borders loose. Sure, the AOA social networking initiative clearly wants to help its member optometrists discover new connections among themselves in areas related to their profession. And, probably would like to discover new connections outside of the professional realm – like who likes to ski, or what’s a good brand of binoculars. But, what somebody had for breakfast? That’s off-limits. And I think this can be problematic because if you create strict, arbitrary borders, you risk limiting meaningful connection for a couple of reasons.
- Sometimes what’s meaningful may not fall clearly on one side of the border or the other. One can contrive examples for a situation like this, like “I’ve been drinking carrot juice with my breakfast for years…” (Yes, I know this is contrived, but you get the point.)
- Just being aware of boundaries promotes a degree of self-censorship among participants. If the network intends to welcome authentic contributions, the fewer “rules” and boundaries that participants need to be cognizant of, the more freely they may express their authentic voice.
- Having a border patrol. Although a stronger argument can be made re: the value of having somebody “police” what people share within the network to reduce the likelihood of slander or other illegal expression, it’s much harder, for me at least, to appreciate the value of having somebody monitor the “border” of what subjects are legitimate and what are not. Whoever the monitor is, s/he necessarily applies a subjective perspective. A human monitor is usually put in place because of the perceived need for judgment. (If no judgment were needed, the border could be “patrolled” automatically – like by rejecting any posts that contain the word “breakfast”). So, by having a human monitor in place to say that this content is OK, and that is not, the network centralizes responsibility for shaping/steering the conversation. Far better (I think) to distribute such responsibility among all participants. Let them hash out what’s appropriate or not, like with Wikipedia’s Discussion pages.
- Who maps the borders. It’s understandable that AOA’s network organizers have a vision of appropriate (and inappropriate) use of this new venture that they are initiating. And I would bet that most optometrists would tend to concur with such intentions. (Few participants are likely to howl in protest that they really want to share their breakfast choices.) But here is a group of professionals being invited to participate in a social network – an ecosystem of relationships in which each member has an equal right to self-expression. I believe that if the network is to be most effective (i.e., most valuable to most participants), then it’s better to let its shape emerge organically. I can imagine the organizers, in announcing the new service, sharing their expectations and vision to kick things off. And then relax, sit back and watch what evolves. If allowed to develop organically, in response to the authentic contributions of those members who choose to contribute, it will more likely grow into something that members find really useful and meaningful (with borders that nobody can predict today.)
I re-read this, and some of it sounds dogmatic, elitist and theoretical. I think it’s great that the AOA is getting into this world, even if their steps are influenced by old paradigms of their role and what is professional. But it gets close to what I’m feeling, and I think I’ll post this now, because I’m hungry and haven’t eaten anything since my breakfast of shredded wheat with blueberries.