Social technology: useful or time wasters?

I finally got around to joining Twitter today. I had resisted thus far as I really couldn’t see the  benefit for anyone over 17 years of age and it just felt like a fad. We’re looking at using it as a communication tool within our HR team so I needed to get on to try it out. Not as bad as I thought but definitely addictive. I was surprised to see a number of friends on there actually. I had thought that Twitter had escaped my demographic cohort. We were all still wasting our time on Facebook, or so I thought.

All of this use of social networking technology has got me thinking though. There are two parts to my musings. One is the creation of an on line identity and how we choose to do that. The other is the learning implications of all this.

First to the learning. There have been many articles, blog posts, etc of late selling the benefits of using on line media for learning. The informal learning community are the most vocal here (try Jay Cross’ blog which is quite good). They argue that we can, and should, embrace this technology in order to better facilitate learning. I heartily agreed with them…until I actually got on line to all this stuff myself to test it out. Firstly just let me say that there is definitely an element of time wasting there. The scary thing is that you actually feel productive while doing it. I think it’s the fact that you’re sitting at a computer so you feel like you’re working and accomplishing something. I’ve come to the conclusion that social networking technology is exactly that, social. It’s great for maintaining and expanding networks, which is critically important in this day and age, but I’m not convinced about the learning. I think that there may be a time and a place but it needs to be facilitated or moderated by someone who can ensure that some sharing and learning actually takes place. Pity I’ve already chosen my PhD topic! Some research definitely needs to be done here.

My other musings are a little more philosophical, they are on the creation of identity. It’s not often we get the opportunity to actively construct our identity. Usually there are elements of choice supplemented by social expectations, peer pressure, family, fashion, the times we live in, Oprah’s latest fad, etc. Our identities are a work in progress, constantly evolving as we learn and grow through life. The on line world presents a unique opportunity to sit down and decide what version of our self we want to project to the world. Is it a professional identity, a social identity for friends, a completely new identity to try things you’ve always been too scared to? What if the different on line versions of you intersect? There was the recent case of the new head of MI6 having personal information put online by his wife who didn’t really think about putting holiday photos on to Facebook. Normally not a problem, unless you’re married to a spy who may like to maintain some anonymity.

I think it’s important to have some sort of strategy for how you will use social networking technology. This is your “personal brand” to steal a phrase. You need to consciously manage how you will use this technology and how much information you want made available. This also goes for your organisation and staff. What work information is appropriate to have on line? How will these technologies affect productivity?

Given that I’ve already wasted at least an hour today in the name of “research” that last question may be the most important one. Just what we need! One more thing to keep us thinking that we’re busy!