“Making it small”: Creating a valuable space on the Web
In the full text of the debate on Web 2.0 between Andrew Keen and David Weinberger, the two argue whether Web 2.0 is more like Disney or Kafka. While I agree that the Web is a chaotic place full of garbage, I find there is value to it for those who can distinguish between the valuable and insightful from the inane and redundant. The Web can be a giant time-suck if don’t know where to go and have created no “walls” to keep out the distractions and the chorus of competing voices. But I think most, if not all, users are able to do so by creating communities.
I think of it this way: when I left the small town of my youth for a large urban university, many people said, unhelpfully, “don’t get lost in the crowd!” But many people said something else: “You will make the university small for yourself.” This last comment was the more prescient. I moved into a dorm (one community), found a job (another community), joined the campus newspaper staff (another community) and had friends in other communities, and so on. I never found it unmanageable; in fact, I “made it small” by joining the groups that were most meaningful to me and that suited my purposes at the university at that time.
I think of the Web the same way: you “make it small” by doing several different things. First, you join the communities that are most meaningful to you. For myself, I value Facebook and LinkedIn. I have my network of “friends” on Facebook with whom I interact every day. This network consists mostly of new friends, old friends, friends from high school, coworkers and friends of friends. I limit views of my profile to friends, and I feel “safe” in this network, even though I know “safety” and “privacy” are illusory on the Web. But I know this, and I am careful what I post and comment on.
It’s the same with LinkedIn, although in a different realm. Some of the people whom I’ve “invited to become part of my network” or accepted their invitations are also Facebook friends, but most are current and former colleagues and people I’ve networked with over the years. There are even a few people in there whom I don’t know, and I don’t even know how we connected in the first place. I use LinkedIn very differently than I do Facebook in that I use it largely to generate business for my freelance work by networking with people who might want to hire me.
I also am the social media chair of the local chapter of the American Medical Writers Association, so I approve or decline membership in our group and occasionally post about an upcoming event or other topic. I’ve never posted anything else, and I’m much more guarded about doing so than on Facebook. Not because I feel unsafe but because the audience is professional, and I feel I’d have to have something uniquely insightful to post before I’d attempt to do so.
So, much of your ability to make the most out of an online community is understanding its audience and reach. Likewise, savvy people know that online-only “friends” or “contacts” on social networking sites control every aspect of how they appear to you (and vice versa). In other words, the man or woman “behind the curtain” may in fact be almost unrecognizable and unfamiliar in person. Thus, I think most adults know to exercise caution when dealing with people whom you have never met in person.
And I think we are, as a whole, becoming more and more savvy about the relationships and communities we participate in online, as well as more and more cautious about what lurks “out there.” In the last decade, we have amassed many a cautionary tale. But, as in “real life,” we can choose whom to be friends with and whom to listen to and communicate with. Our job is to “make the Web small” by effectively managing our exposure to different types of information from different sources and to understand that they are not all equal. If we can do that, the Web is an invaluable resource and a fantastic source of knowledge. In other words, yes, there are plenty of cockroaches, but you might not see them if you keep the light on.