Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Getting to Know Deanna (An excerpt from the book Share This!)

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[Cross-posted, with minor edits, from the Zanby blog. -LU]

My good friend, co-conspirator, social media maven, and all-round diva of awesomeness Deanna Zandt has a new book out. And it mentions Zanby! Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking (Berrett-Koehler) is chock-full of anecdotes and case studies drawn from her own life as a social activist, artist, and media maker. Deanna illustrates the many ways social media improves our relationships and enables new forms of political and social expression that are changing the world for the better.

One of those anecdotes recounts how Deanna and I met up in Brooklyn two years ago. (And it gives a nice plug for Zanby.) We barely knew each other before that, having met in passing at a conference. But, thanks mainly to Twitter and Facebook, we were able to connect, build trust, and grow a friendship with a depth and speed that would have been virtually impossible just a few short years earlier, considering that she lives in Brooklyn, I live in Seattle, and we see each other once a year, if we’re lucky.

Here, with Deanna’s permission, is an excerpt from pages 41-43 of Share This! where she tells our story:

Your Life Makes History

Now that relationships and trust influence how we receive and manage digital information, we’re becoming more connected, and thus we have the capacity to be more empathetic. That trust-created empathy will lead us away from the isolation and resulting apathy that we’ve experienced as a culture, arising from the 20th century’s focus on mass communications and market demographics.

Here’s a story about how building trust through social networks has worked for me. A couple of years ago, I spoke at a conference in northern California. After my song and dance, Leif Utne, the vice president of community development for the software company Zanby, came up to introduce himself. He was working on a project that he wanted to get my employer, Jim Hightower, involved with. We exchanged contact info and became Facebook friends; later we started following each other on Twitter.

About a year and a half later, Leif messaged me to say that he was coming to Brooklyn for a visit and wanted to know if I’d like to get coffee. Sure! Of course! When we sat down a few days later, I asked him how the baby was–he and his wife had spent a long time adopting a baby from Guatemala, and Leif had even lived there for ten months. He lit up and showed me recent photos, and then asked how my dog, Izzy, was adjusting to life in Brooklyn. I had adopted her from a rescue organization, and we laughed at how the processes for adopting dogs and children were eerily similar.

Leif asked if he could show me a new online service that he’d taken a job with, one that would give groups a way to connect their memberships. Absolutely, I said. We did a run-through, and he talked about some of his company’s successes. I started thinking of clients who could really use something like this tool and offered to put him in touch with them.

My online friendship with Leif is significant for several reasons. Social media enabled a kind of “identity authentication” between us. I was aware of Leif’s family’s work with the Utne Reader before I met him, but being connected via social media gave me insight into some of his values and interests. And vice versa. More important, though, it allowed us to collect seemingly unrelated fragments of information about one another over time, and to create a wide-angled picture of the other person with those fragments. Technology writer Clive Thompson calls this phenomenon “ambient awareness” of the people around us.

It doesn’t impact my life at all to know that Leif is heading to the airport, and he probably doesn’t care that I spent an extra 30 minutes with my dog in the park this morning. But over time, we are able to see a portrait of one another’s lives take shape and feel connected. While Leif’s trip to the airport doesn’t affect my daily life, if he misses his plane, I feel bad for him. There’s the empathy, simply by being aware of another person’s “mundane” activities. Our portraits of one another facilitated an in-person conversation that otherwise would have been stilted and awkward:

“So, you, uh, have kids?”

“No, you?”

“Yeah, one. A little boy.”

“Uh-huh.”

Instead, we were able to tap into what we care about pretty quickly, and the landing into the “business” end of the meeting was much smoother.

Admittedly, experimenting with what it means to share different parts of our lives can sometimes be uncomfortable. Chip Conley, the CEO of a family of boutique hotels in northern California called Joie de Vivre, offers a case in point. In 2009, he wrote about the fallout from photos he posted to Facebook from his latest Burning Man trip. Some workers were surprised to see Conley in a tutu and a sarong. The complicated part wasn’t that he didn’t want them online, or that his investors or board members didn’t want them online; it was that some employees struggled with seeing their fearless leader show a carefree side of himself that didn’t “fit” with the standard work environment. We’re all still determining what we each individually consider acceptable amounts of information, as well as what we’ll tolerate organizationally and culturally.

Thanks to the alienating effect of mass communications, our ability to converse directly with one another, and to engage with the larger culture in a meaningful way, has withered. While no one has figured out a precise formula for what amount or mix of sharing creates empathy, presenting real pictures of real lives indisputably frees us from our pigeonholes. Social networks give us the opportunity to reengage with one another.

Order Share This! at your favorite bookstore, or online at Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

Written by leifutne

September 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm

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