We in library land spend a lot of time talking about the “social” web. We create Facebook profiles, MySpace pages, sign up for Twitter, and let people know what we’re thinking by writing blog entries, commenting on blog entries, and IMing each other… and that’s just scratching the surface. There are more social spaces online than any one person could possibly keep up with in a lifetime. And they serve several distinct (and sometimes conflicting) roles. We talk about wanting to seem more relevant and approachable, inserting ourselves were our patrons are, “personalizing” the library. We also use these tools to build our own professional networks, exchange professional wisdom, troubleshoot problems, give encouragement, and just plain hang out with each other. Beyond that, I’m sure lots of librarians have a personal space or two online where they can connect with friends and family on a less-library-related footing.
I don’t know why it continues to surprise me, given the shear volume of interaction, that the social web is more than just social. It’s personal. I don’t mean “bare the hidden secrets of your family” or “gossip about people” personal. That’s almost never advisable. No, I mean “act kind of like an extended family” personal. For someone who’s never had boatloads of friends (being content with a few really good ones), I hadn’t expected to develop such close ties with people I’d never seen in real life. I still marvel that several of my very best friends don’t know what my voice sounds like when I’m excited, or have never decoded the set of my jaw and realized that I’m concentrating.
Even so, some of these people know me better than my extended family does (and mine is a fairly close-knit extended family). They know when I’m bursting with good news, when I’ve had a rough day, and when Pippin has snuggled in for a good cuddle-n-purr session. And what really gets me is this: they actually care to hear these things, just like I care to hear about similar things from them. Personally, I can’t imagine most of my cousins being interested in that kind of information.
This kind of personal affection and interest was highlighted this week when somebody in one of these social circles was killed in a car accident. I didn’t know this person at all. Our two circles overlapped, but we’d never “met.” And yet, the ripples of the tragedy spread quickly as the woman’s friends expressed shock and disbelief and spread this to their friends, who spread it to their friends, and so on. Very quickly, an entire social network seemed to have slowed to a crawl as everyone lost the will to share trivial thoughts in the face of such events. (The woman was young… my age, in fact, with very young children.)
And that’s when I realized that the social web is more than social. It’s personal. It’s intimate. And it is immensely powerful, though not necessarily in the way I’d thought before. It’s not enough just to “be where the patrons are.” I’ve never thought that sounded right, somehow. I’d hear that phrase and imagine it being like standing in the lobby of a dorm feeling foolish and not doing anyone any good. No, being involved with an online social network more than that. And if we don’t admit that to ourselves, I think we set ourselves up for stress, anxiety, and disappointment.