I think we often underestimate the value of small talk. I should know, because small talk is something I’m really bad at. When I go to a party, I often start talking about serious issues, business, and/or highly technical things, and within minutes, I’m standing alone in the middle of a crowd. If you intellectually think about the idea of small talk, everyone tends to dismiss it as being superficial and pointless, but it must have a very important social function, otherwise people would not do it so often (and otherwise I should be the life of the party).
In a society, we individually operate like brain cells. Various studies have shown that we don’t actually forget anything, but we just lose the connections between the cells. Other studies have shown that the more we use a connection between cells, the stronger it gets, and more importantly, the stronger it gets, the more we tend to use it. It’s like getting on a highway; because the flow of information is so efficient on a highway, we tend to prefer using it, even if it’s not the shortest path.
Facebook and other social networking sites essentially recreates the structure of our brains. Every time you post a status update on Facebook, you are strengthening (or lubricating) the connections between you and your “friends”. This is the benefit of small talk and this is why we do it so often. The idea is to maintain the connections so that when there are more serious or urgent issues, those connections come in handy.
I believe that if you do not join any social networking, you would eventually be isolated in the same manner those who do not have cellphones are. Your friends and colleagues would simply use the connections that are stronger and more lubricated (recently updated in their minds) for important matters as well as for small matters, and you will be increasingly isolated, just by the sheer fact that others are building much stronger connections online.
I doubt social networking would replace face-to-face socializing, but I do believe that the overall amount of socializing (on-line and off-line) will increase. Email has not replaced physical mail, but the amount of communication we do has increased because of email. I believe the same will happen with social networking. The overall amount of socializing will increase because of the efficiency, which means that, if you don’t do any social networking, you will have a significant disadvantage.
In short, the real benefits of Facebook is invisible on the site itself. The real benefits are actually taking place outside of it. It’s just like the difference between people who socialize often versus people who never do. The apparent superficiality of Facebook is quite deceptive in this way.
In comparison, let’s look at LinkedIn. I used to think that LinkedIn would become more successful than Facebook, but now I’m beginning to doubt it. As I said above, even business relationships are built on small talk, but LinkedIn does not encourage it. There is a reason why we invite our clients to lunch, dinner, and drinks. More casual and personal environments are better for building trusting relationships. A member of KKK might be a perfectly competent professional during the day, but if you are not white, it’s a piece of information that would be useful, especially if you are thinking of building a long-term relationship. This is a form of discrimination, but it’s part of the reality we cannot ignore. On LinkedIn, you would never be able to get this type of information. On Facebook, you would have a better chance. This is why, I believe, Facebook is a better business application than LinkedIn is.
Our immediate response to these implications of social networking is that we should be careful and conservative in what we express online. I agree that we should be careful, but conservative, we should not. Just think of blogs. If you were to start a new blog today and talk about what you ate for dinner last night, you are not going to get any visitors to your site. These days, even if you focused your blog on just talking about the economy in general, you are not going to get any visitors either. You need to be much more unique, focused, and/or extreme. If you look at the top financial bloggers, most of them have extreme views, and they are not shy about sharing their deepest anger, criticizing specific individuals, or even cursing at them. Why? Because we would simply go to Wall Street Journal or New York Times if we wanted general news or the mainstream opinions. The blogs offer something different, and they complement the mainstream media. Because of certain editorial policies, there are many things journalists or op-ed columnists cannot say. So, if you want to know what people are really thinking, the blogsphere is a better place. To take a conservative attitude in blogs is rather pointless.
I recently posted the following as my status update on Facebook:
“We don’t want to prevent the shit from hitting the fan, because we would miss the occasional gems thrown at our way. We just need to learn how to clean up the shit well, so as to minimize the damage, but accept the fact that the shit WILL hit the fan.”
When we expose ourselves in public, the shit will hit the fan from time to time. It’s unavoidable. You might offend some people. Someone might decide not to hire you. You might lose a friend. Someone might steal your identity. Etc.. But that’s the risk you take. It would be stupid to go around posting your social security number and credit card number everywhere, but at the same time, it would be stupid to never reveal anything about yourself either. My own philosophy is that I should learn to clean up the mess well when something does go wrong. That’s where I want to put my time and effort in learning, not in learning how to prevent the mess from happening. In fact, what is far more scary is, to reveal your deepest, most personal, and sincerest thoughts and feelings as artists and writers do. In comparison, revealing your personal information is nothing. With the latter, there are many practical solutions to deal with the problem. With the former, you are rather defenseless.
When you express your honest opinions, the shit will hit the fan no matter what, but this is actually far better than to write something conservative and have nobody notice you. Even if you offend 9 out of 10 people, you would still gain 1 audience. When you play safe in today’s world, you would get none. In the old days when the mass-media was still one-way communication, and when we only had a dozen TV channels, appealing to the general audience was appropriate, but today, it’s pointless. This means that, if you are indeed a KKK member, you might as well tell the world about it. It would probably lead to more profitable business relationships.
The positive thing about this new environment is that it encourages us to be ourselves no matter how weird we might be inside. In our brave new world, not sharing our weirdness or idiosyncrasy can lead to obscurity. In fact, if we try to be extreme for the sake of being extreme, that is, if we are not expressing ourselves honestly, we wouldn’t last long on the Internet. Such a blog, for instance, usually loses steam in a matter of a few months.
Also, our attempt to separate our personal and public lives will eventually fail. It’s rather futile. No matter how hard you try, sooner or later, you will give it up. The flow of information is so efficient now that we don’t have much control over it. Trying to control the flow of information (trying to prevent the shit from hitting the fan) would turn into a full time job. It’s unproductive and ineffective. We are better off letting it go, and learn how to clean up the mess. If we get good enough at it, we can even turn a PR disaster into a new opportunity. Some skillful PR people have already been doing this. In our hyper-efficient world, we need to be our own PR agent.