September 13, 2007

OMG Carl Kasell Wants to Be My Friend!?

I logged into my Facebook account the other day to check on something, and I flicked over to my friend requests page after noticing that there was a new one. It was (allegedly) from Carl Kasell, NPR radio personality.

My first thought was “Wow! Someone famous wants to be my friend!” and my immediate second thought was “Ha, it can’t really be him.” But some sleuthing suggests that there’s a pretty good chance that it is, in fact, a friend request from a well known NPR anchor. He’s connected to others who I know personally in the offline world who work there.

So assuming that this is Carl Kasell, the question now remains, do I make him my “friend?”

This incident brought home for me the insufficiency of social networks as a facsimile for the real world. The universality of the online social network “friend” doesn’t fully capture, even with privacy controls, the incredible variation we have in our personal relationships.

In the real world, if I met Carl at a function or interview, I’d hand him my business card, I’d (most likely) be dressed in work appropriate clothes, and we’d discuss work related things.

But my Facebook page wasn’t built as a “work” space. I initially built it to interact with friends from graduate school, and subsequently built another profile when I taught an undergraduate course at a local university, but it eventually settled into a personal, rather than professional space.

However, as Facebook opens up and becomes increasingly popular, it has been put to more, and more professional uses. There’s a conference that I’ll be attending that is already organizing groups via Facebook. Journalists and some strangers have asked me to be their friends. But it’s doubtful that I’d talk about my hobbies, or music choices or favorite book with these folks.

It has become clear that I can no longer use this space as a personal one – once again, in the online world, I will be forced to default to my most neutral persona. Not that I think that my personal Facebook page would be offensive to anyone, but in my quest to keep my work and my personal life separate, my public, work-related life takes precedence over the rest of me. It’s a shame too, because one level sharing information has the potential to forge a new layer of connections with folks with whom you work or interact on a professional basis. But as a neutral researcher, personality becomes a liability.

And this is the direction that we push our kids too. We tell them to sanitize their online profiles, lest colleges, or parents or future employers see what they have written or posted. And it’s definitely the safe thing to do. But it also takes some of the life, some of the fun out of our digital spaces.

Turns out, too, that according to a recent Business Week article, that maybe Carl Kasell doesn’t really want to be my friend. It turns out that the director of “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” Melody Joy Kramer, is at the wheel when it comes to Carl’s Facebook profile, because “he doesn’t really use a computer.”