Sharing things, and ourselves

There are two kinds of people in the world: those that think social is about sharing things, and those that think it’s about sharing our selves.
Like all one-liners, the statement above is a hopeless overgeneralization. But I think it helps to try to connect the dots on a lot of the commentary  about social tools and their impact on business and society. At the most banal, when we use a tool to share a file, or an event, or a task with another person, we are doing that: sharing a file, an event, or a task. Perhaps we can discuss that tool without exploring motivation and purpose, at all. But perhaps we can’t. Even if we don’t explicitly lay our use cases for the people sharing the files, events, and tasks that fill the social tool under discussion, aren’t the use cases implicit? Isn’t there always a user trying to make things, sell things, or find things? And doesn’t that user have some larger goal? Isn’t the tool a means to an end, like a forklift being used to build a building, a hospital or a cathedral? Aren’t all the use cases about people connecting, collaborating, communicating?
I think this dualism is inescapable. Yes, people are trying to accomplish life goals as they employ tools to share. Like tiny fragments of broken tiles,  pasted into mosaics, we really need to step back to gain a perspective so that the chips of blue, green, and red can form a tableau, and represent something larger, something more that the sum of its parts.
Writing about social tools is exactly like that. On one hand, we are discussing whether some product allows us to attach a file to a task, or whether a new solution integrates with Dropbox or Google Drive. We are down in the weeds half the time, or more, it seems.
But I am reminded of the quote from Oscar Wilde, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.
It’s the impacts of these tools — the way that they shift the workings of our minds and organizations — that pulls analysis up from being just a dreary obsession with features and their relative benefits. We are changed by the tools we use,  and potentially made better, wiser, kinder. So, there is a second aspect of this analysis, which is looking at the human mind and our attempts to connect.
This past week was a great example of that dichotomy, moving back and forth from a review of the specifics of collaborative tools to the larger questions of their impacts on us as individuals, or as a society.
I looked at a number of applications that allow us to collaborate in tightly defined ways:

On the more societal level, I explored a number of themes related to productivity:

  • Coworking is exploding and not just because it saves money for freelancers. Its real boost come from the power of supportive communities, and how those communities foster increased productivity.
  • I build on some thoughts of Anna Carlson’s on social learning, and suggest that 80% is eliminating fear, and 20% is regaining a childlike curiosity, or what Zen practitioners call ‘beginning’s mind’.
  • Sameer Patel dug into some of my earlier comments on the longevity of email, and makes the argument that social tools have just not gone far enough to obsolete email, yet.
  • I wondered if outsourcing your own job to a company in China (like the Verizon programmer, ‘Bob’) was really such a bad idea, and hand waved at a business based on that possibility.

So, another week of using a microscope to examine our tools and then a telescope to gaze at us, using them. It’s kind of a great job, really.