Making Friends

By Kate Sheehan |

Online life is fraught with drama. We all have stories of unexpectedly adolescent awkwardness erupting in our digital lives. Online friending can get weird enough when you're stumbling across high school frenemies, but toss in your coworkers, work friends, personal friends and your boss? Yikes!

The natural extension of the biblioblogosphere has been librarians on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and the like. Reading a blog is easy, but trying to decide who to follow on Twitter or move into your “Friends” group on Flickr is hard. It’s confusing enough to warrant presentations on how to manage our online identities.

Internet Librarian speaker danah boyd talked about the “public articulation of friends” and how incredibly awful this makes us all feel. She explained that teenagers who have grown up online have social norms that allow them to work around some potential hurt feelings, but adults do not-- we’re burdened by a slurry of our past, our present, the professional and the personal.

In response, our online lives are retracting,  while simultaneously expanding. Blogs have become a mature, perhaps more serious platform, so naturally, they’re being declared dead. Posts are more infrequent but they’re often longer and more in-depth. Casual observations and chitchat have moved to Twitter. Librarians on Twitter found that any semblance of a personal and professional divide crumbled. Many took their more personal conversations over to FriendFeed, and then to invite-only rooms within FriendFeed. Retreat, it seems, is an effective tool in managing our online lives.

We’re left with a slew of sites to maintain our hunger for information. We may try to assign a site for each area of our lives, but that rarely seems to work. Boundaries become very individual and troubles start when we lose sight of the personal nature of those lines and break someone else’s rules.

And that’s just when we’re signing in as ourselves.

David Lee King has been blogging about managing the library’s presence on social networking sites, which has turned out to be a controversial topic. Should a library friend another library? Should the library randomly friend people from the community? Can we really use social networking tools as outreach without doing some actual, you know, outreach first? Every organization is going to have a different answer.

My colleague and YALSA blogger Sarah Ludwig recently chronicled her experiences with Facebook at work. I admit that when I saw she had made a page for our library’s new teen space, I thought “great! I’ll become a fan!” but stopped myself when I realized that I’d probably scare away all the actual teenagers. As David, Sarah and many of their commenters point out, social networking as an institution needs focus and purpose to succeed. Too bad it’s so hard to successfully apply those rules to our personal online lives.

So far we’ve got personal drama, professional angst and a charming mélange of the two online. Why do we do this to ourselves? David Pouge recently devoted a blog post to explaining why he makes videos. Increasingly, we’re making videos and taking photos so we can share them on our social networking sites. It’s tempting to dismiss all of this documenting and posting and networking as ego-driven drivel. It may very well be, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Pouge concludes  that “We’re shooting on faith. Believing that somebody *might* someday be interested in your videos inspires and drives us.

“Look, we do all kinds of things based on faith. People expend all kinds of effort now because they hope, without any guarantees, that it will pay off down the line: get married, worship, drink a glass of wine every day. It’s human nature.”

“And it’s human to want to record our lives, too.”

“And that’s why I shoot.”

We reach out online to connect, to be known, to make friends. The anxiety and difficulty we experience along the way is part of being people. Is it any different than the workplace follies many of us experience every day? In substance, no. It’s just much more public.

It’s the public nature of these interpersonal politics that catches us off guard. We don’t have social norms in place just yet. If your boss brings in her stack of vacation photos, you know to look at them and make appropriate oohing and ahhing noises. But we’re still sometimes flummoxed by how to respond to her Flickr posts.

Kevin Kelly’s piece on screen literacy points out that “Because of new consumer gadgets, community training, peer encouragement and fiendishly clever software, the ease of making video now approaches the ease of writing.” Implicit in that ease of use is an assumption that we will appear in more videos and we will communicate our ideas in video. Our online social lives seem complicated now with “did you see my tweet about that?” but that will be small potatoes compared to “did you see my video about that?”

Kelly is calling for screen fluency, “If text literacy meant being able to parse and manipulate texts, then the new screen fluency means being able to parse and manipulate moving images with the same ease.” This will require not only a host of technical skills but also a new set of social skills.

Beyond moving images, screens often carry with them an expectation of interaction that does not exist in print. Our current fumblings with social networking sites will lay the groundwork for a social fluency with the screen, with video, which “invite(s) the same satisfying participation in both creation and consumption that the world of text does.”

Many of us became librarians because we like to learn new things, use new tools, and build new skills. However, many of the learning curves we’ve climbed have had a definitive end point. Screen fluency, and the social shifts that come with it, is not something we can cross off our to-do lists anytime soon. The curve is endless because it is constantly evolving. Figuring out whether to friend other libraries, cold-friend people in your community or how many of your boss’s photos you have to comment on is just the beginning.