Monday, May 4, 2009

False Intimacy

So you think you know me, but you don't know goes the lyrics to the familiar love ballad. Well, familiar if you are my age and listened to your parents' music or have heard the beautiful remake by Diana Krall. It is a song about the mix of realism with imagination in a relationship, and the resulting melancholy of unrequited love. (My interpretation at least.) The phenomenon of perception created by one's observations without a real means to test their true meaning. Actions by one person are ascribed a meaning by the listener/observer without regard to the feelings of the actor. It leads to misperception...."you don't know me." Is the true the same in the context of modern day social networking? Does the plethora of communication through technology create a false intimacy between actor and observer?

Social networking has spread like wildfire in recent years. The evolution from mobile phone, instant messaging, the PDA, texting, Facebook, and now Twitter, has changed how people communicate as well as the content of the message. Do we assume that the words "I love you" spoken in person carries the same as "luv ya" in a tweet? The pace of daily life moves so fast that it seems we really haven't taken time to consider the power of truncated messages used in the modern day, to say nothing of the relative lack of privacy of those messages. Take the Facebook status update as an example. Users type in a brief status message that is posted to their "wall" (more or less a personal homepage), out there on display for their connected friends and people in their network to see. The prompt on Facebook poses a question to the user "What's on your mind?" Type in a sentence or two, click on the 'share' button, and voila, you have just communicated your innermost thoughts to 200 of your closest friends. Those friends can respond to the note, post their own note, post a link to an article or video with a comment, post photos, and on and on.

What is all this creating? Facebook calls them "stories." But what do we truly know from these stories? The user may be doing everything from revealing their innermost feelings about something they just experienced ("Getting a hug from my kids is the best part of being a dad"), or testing fodder as an aspiring fiction writer ("it was a dark and stormy night.") Here's the rub - how are we to know the difference? The readers of those updates may ascribe an entirely different meaning than what the person posting ever intended in either case, real or imagined. This can all dangerously lead to a sense of false intimacy: the feeling that we deeply know someone based on a series of 140 character blurts in cyberspace. I just wonder if this too easily creates a false impression.

Don't get me wrong. I am a big fan of technology and applaud the innovators who find new ways for it to bring new dimension to our daily experiences. I also believe in the principles of free speech. Easy to see how I could be an internet junkie, eh? As an executive recruiter I look people up on the internet everyday. I look for common things like published articles and professional bios posted on web sites, and stumble on incidental things like wedding announcements. My clients pay me to know the candidates I present to them well enough to have vetted basic appropriate background information, and I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't spend the time to obtain information first hand from candidates as well as through independent verification and exploration of someone's background. I could cripple my credibility if I were to present a lawyer candidate to a client without checking for their State Bar admission status and later learn the person had been disciplined or disbarred. But do I disclose their latest party weekend indiscretion posted in a tweet? Of course not, that crosses the line between social banter and professional behavior. It may be the mindset of my client however to check the social networking sites, or make an assumption about what they see on a Facebook post.

Recently an unemployed lawyer networked their way to my inbox, and in the message was a link to what I reasonably believed was a legitimate website. (Hear that scream of the IT tech in the background?) It was indeed a blog, chock full of info about this well-credentialed and earnest lawyer, one of many perfectly capable people in the unenviable position of being between opportunities in a lousy economy. It started out with the usual info - education pedigree details and work history, a chronology of professional employment, all appropriate. As I scrolled through the info there was a discussion of this person's journey through finding new employment, complete with a scorched earth opinion of corporate interview practices. Wow, any prospective employer would read this and be repelled by the cynicism and disdain expressed in this perspective on hiring. What to do with this info, do I consider it as part of my evaluation of a prospective candidate for a client? Is it the understandable temporary frustration of an otherwise credentialed professional? The reader wants us to know them, but are we getting to know this person's background, their opinion, or is it just another creative use of social networking. In this case it was relatively easy to pick up the phone, call the person, and find out for myself through good old fashioned person to person contact. That is not always practical of course but it drives home the point that misperceptions are easily created.

You can tell that I am skeptical about the appropriateness of social networking chatter encroaching into professional territory. The underlying premise however is that we all make assumptions based on what we see out there. I worry we draw assumptions so quickly that we fail to discern true feelings from mindless banter. Let's not forget the power of what we all put out there, and the increasing power of unintended consequences. Oh yeah, and maybe it's not a bad idea to pick up the phone once in awhile. Because otherwise....."you think you know me, but you don't know me."


  1. so net net: never ever let your guard down?

  2. Essentially, yes. Be alert to the devil of complacency and not get lulled in by a false sense of security that our immediate assumptions are true.