How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Twitter

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In honor of Twitter making the decision to come to Detroit, here’s a special post on how I became a Twitter user.

At 3:30pm my wife called me. There was a shooting where my brother-in-law works at UPMC Western Psych and no one could get a hold of him. I went over to my sister-in-law’s house and found out he was okay, but no one knew much beyond that. The police weren’t saying anything and the news didn’t have much to say either. We knew several people had been shot , but had no idea if the shooter had been caught, if my brother-in-law was actually safe, or if the danger had passed. We started searching Twitter for news.

It was amazing.

The conversation around UPMC was fast; people both inside the building and outside the scene were trading information and rumors.  Obviously there was a lot of conflicting information, but it was comforting. I don’t think anyone, including the police and the major news groups, had a better perspective on what was happening inside and out than those of us on Twitter.

I was impressed.

This brought to a head a problem I began to have several months ago when I started to use Twitter data at work. Twitter is an amazing resource, much more so than Facebook or Google+. The open and public nature makes it an incredible window into what people are thinking and doing. Why is that an issue for me? Because I don’t participate. I’m a voyeur in the Twitterverse looking at people’s thoughts and social networks. It’s creepy. The creepiness is why I don’t participate in Twitter and why I hardly participate in Facebook even though I keep the security locked down fairly tight. To be specific, I have 4 major issues with all social networks:

  1. Physical Security
  2. Information Security
  3. Personal Privacy
  4. Weapons of Mass Distraction (Productivity)

The first two are the most serious. Any time you reveal your location, whether it is via a geotag or referencing where you are in a post it presents a threat to your physical security. When you reveal your location you let people not only where you are – but where you’re not. Worse yet, because most people tend to have patterns of travel, even if you only reveal your location occasionally your pattern of movement can be constructed over time. Information security is a less severe, although equally real threat. If you haven’t heard a couple professors at Carnegie Mellon University were quite successful at predicting social security numbers from public data sets. Although I have not tried it, I will also guarantee that publically available data makes it easier and faster to crack anyone’s password.

The second two are less serious but still a concern. Every person wants a different degree of privacy and that’s a personal choice. Social media as a “weapon of mass distraction” is not uniquely personal. As far as I can tell the addictiveness and ADHD levels of distraction caused by the social web seem pretty ubiquitous. I have a hard time embracing or endorsing anything that appears to erode mindfulness, awareness, and personal socialization.

However, these fears and concerns come at a cost: the cost of virtual socialization. On a grand scale, one could point out the fact that social media and social networking may have had an impact on the “Arab Spring”. On a more personal scale, one could point out that virtual relationship are the only way anyone can maintain relationships with people in a social network that spans the globe. It’s a way of finding like-minded individuals anywhere. Ultimately the benefits of virtual socialization far outweigh the costs.

As a 1-track-mind kind of person, I hate the conclusion this brings me to, but it’s the right one: balance. Participation in the social web requires self-control and balance: balance to keep yourself secure and balance to have an appropriately private and productive life. I am terrible at balance. I think, and hope, in the not too distance future we’ll have figured out a way to make balance in our electronic lives a seamless and harmonious part of participation.

Until then though, I’m going to do my best to tweet, blog, and find some balance. We can do great things and enable others to do great things when we openly share our thoughts and relationship. Look out 2006, here I come …

And Twitter – welcome to Detroit, we’re glad to have ya.

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