BusinessWeek reporter Douglas MacMillan's recent article, "The Recession: My Facebook, My Therapist," was a very telling commentary about the Internet isolating, rather than connecting, people—especially those in distress who couldn't talk openly to their friends or families about being unemployed but instead chose to open up online.
I've seen this phenomenon going on for a long time, mostly with kids text-messaging each other or hanging out online on Facebook or MySpace instead of being able to utter a coherent sentence at a social occasion. Is this what our species has become?
MacMillan's piece explores how online junkies are finding solace through social networking in these uncertain times. They post their résumés and mug shots and chat on popular sites like Twitter, SnapMyLife, Facebook, and LinkedIn and are building their own online support groups.
As a longtime journalist, I give good phone, so the article made me wonder why they don't just pick up the phone and talk to someone, anyone. Still, despite being a blogger these days, I was curious if I was missing out by not participating in social networks. Spurred by MacMillan's article, I decided (finally) to do something by starting with my neglected LinkedIn account.
After noodling around, I quickly found myself with 186 LinkedIn connections. Ta-da! But now what? I contacted about a dozen of my LinkedIn connections, mostly from the TV industry and many of them reeling from recent layoffs at their companies, asking why they're on LinkedIn and if they get any value out of their experience.
Face to Facebook
By and large, they told me, they do not. While they advocate social networking, they were nowhere near as passionate as the people mentioned in MacMillan's article. Take my struggling screenplay-writing New York bud. She is the Perle Mesta of expanding her online networks, but said she much prefers face to face.
She likens her experiences on LinkedIn to networking at a virtual cocktail mixer. "As with most parties, chances are slim that you'll actually get any work out of the effort. But if you take the attitude that new job leads are beside the point, it can be amusing," she commented.
Another old colleague, whose public relations job pretty much mandates she stay on top of social networks, observed: "I suppose the few minutes I spend reveling in one of those blasts from the past is in fact therapeutic, and comforting, to be even briefly reconnected to communities and people you've known."
To Be LinkedIn, or Out?
We all want to be connected during these sorry times, but there is a definite downside to participating in online social networks. A Los Angeles-based TV exec told me how LinkedIn can be a humiliating experience due to the "social awkwardness of rejecting people's request to be linked to you, because you don't want to advertise an association with them."
What's more, he said, the more contacts you have on LinkedIn, the more desperate you might appear to be. My L.A. pal's conclusion: It's inherently cooler not to be listed there. So: to link, or not to link? That's my new year's quandary, and I hope to resolve it.