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Friday
May252012

What can we learn from the fate of Facebook's IPO?

On the day Facebook went public, USA Today editorial writers acknowledged that people have to pay attention to any phenomenon that attracts 900 million users worldwide, even if you’re not in line to buy their stock.   They praised Facebook for “giving people a soapbox from which to express their opinions” and giving “people living under repressive regimes a tool for bypassing government censorship.” At the same time, they also noted that Facebook “contributes to the many digital addictions that people are developing, while creating a false sense of friendship and connection as actual relations wither.”

Two weeks earlier, Eugene, Oregon teenager Tuyen Bolton echoed this criticism when he wrote to his local newspaper,

"I’m a high school senior who enjoys the current technology but I’ve found that people—particularly teenagers—have lost their sense of connection with those they see regularly. . . . As you sit down at the table together, you discover what was supposedly a ‘dinner and discussion’ becomes a conversation between a Blackberry and an iPhone. . . . Technology is killing the art of communication. . . . So the next time you’re about to answer that text, think about communicating with the person you’re with and not with your phone."

A week after Facebook’s IPO, the stock’s value had dropped about 15%.  NASDAQ delays and trading issues were partly to blame, but it appears that investors might also be wondering about the beef behind founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision to create “a world that [is] more open.”  According to his 2009 Wired interview, openness is key to this vision.  “We talk about this concept of openness and transparency as the high level ideal that we’re moving towards at Facebook,” Zuckerberg said.  “The way that we get there is by empowering people to share and connect. . . .We define ourselves more broadly, as a company that’s trying to bring innovative things to people that help them share more and make the world more open.”

Openness can certainly be beneficial.  Almost 30 years ago, organizational consultant Fritz Steele’s The Open Organization:  The Impact of Secrecy and Disclosure on People and Organizations made the case for corporate transparency, and both psychotherapists and communication experts have known for decades that reciprocal disclosure is a pre-requisite for relationship development.  But when Zuckerberg contends that “You should be able to connect to a business in the same way that you connect to a friend,” and when he says that businesses like Home Depot are “caring more. . .engaging. . .and humanizing [themselves],” he’s glossing over a tremendously important distinction between impersonal and interpersonal communicating.

USA Today is concerned about “a false sense of connection as actual relations wither,” and Tuyen Bolton believes that “Technology is killing the art of communication.”  They get the distinction that Zuckerberg appears to miss.

More contact, more communication is often better.  And not always.

More openness can be empowering, and can invite authentic connection.  And it’s more complicated than that.

For the most part, Facebook and other social media sites are horizontal, rather than vertical.  They mainly facilitate contacts that may be miles wide and are seldom more than an inch deep.  An individual’s relationship with Home Depot, Applebees, or Morgan Stanley is never going to be the same as her relationship with a friend, despite Zuckerberg’s hope.  There’s a difference between impersonal and interpersonal contact that should be preserved and nurtured.

Philosophers have argued for decades, and neuroscientists have now confirmed, that humans can relate to what’s around us in two very different ways.  We can relate rationally, analytically, objectively, instrumentally, as we do with a cafeteria server, bank teller, or ticket-taker, and this can be an empowering, useful, and often beneficial way to communicate.  We can also relate holistically, personally, uniquely, mythopoetically, as we do with some friends, colleagues, and family members, and this is also an empowering, enriching, and eminently beneficial way to communicate.  Our lives are richest when we do both.

My book, Moments of Meeting: Listen and Speak to Enhance Your Life explains this difference and offers practical advice about how to promote interpersonal contact online, in dating and courtship, with family members, in business contexts, in spiritual and religious settings, in learning situations, and in the civic/political arena.

Let me know if you want to learn more.