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Posts Tagged ‘friends’

500,000,000 can't be wrong, can they?A couple of very different stories about Facebook hit the news cycle at about the same time last week, and they both speak to the site’s place in our lives — but in very different ways.

The first story is a pretty straightforward piece of evidence. Facebook has doubled in size in just the last year, and has now surpassed 500 million users, amassing 100 million new users just since February. Mark Zuckerberg, the face behind Facebook, has promised that they will reach 1 billion, and at this rate that seems certain.

But here’s the other curious piece of news. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, conducted by the University of Michigan’s business school, a LOT of those 500 million people aren’t very satisfied. The site placed in the bottom five percent of private sector companies for customer satisfaction.

Put those two stories together for a minute, and let them roll around in your head. What’s that tell you? That Facebook better get its act together or they’ll tumble? Doubtful.

What it says to me is that Facebook has reached some pretty rare heights. They have built a product that is so ubiquitous that they don’t have to care if people are satisfied with it. Sure, they will no doubt continue to make tweaks to “refine” the Facebook experience. But in the end, it’s like we used to say about Ma Bell before the breakup.

They’re the phone company. They don’t care. They don’t have to.

Other service providers have this same status. Take cable television, for example. My guess is that most of you reading this post pay a pretty penny every month for access to hours and hours of programming you don’t watch and wouldn’t be interested in anyway. Bad service? Oh, well. Spotty signal? Bummer. We kicked the cable habit (as well as the TV habit pretty much) about eight years ago and now the thought of actually paying $30, $50, or even $70 dollars a month (how high do YOU go?) to watch TV seems like absolute folly. Yet for most, it’s just not something they would ever consider doing without. Increasingly, it’s the same with web access. We simply feel like we have to have it, and we’ll pony up whatever we need to keep it.

For my part, I’m not sure whether I need Facebook or not. Certainly this blog would have far fewer readers without it. And I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of catching up with some old friends at a high school reunion a few weeks back if I wasn’t a Facebook user. So there are some definite advantages for me. But increasingly, there are times when I log on and find myself wondering exactly what I’m looking for. Or whether or not it’s the best way for me to be spending my time at that moment.

In the end, I tend to judge technology’s worth to me by its utility, not how engaging or amusing it is. Sometimes, as in the case of my iPod Touch, I am surprised to discover just how quickly a particular technology proves valuable to me, often in ways I might not have expected. But other times — and this is where I am with Facebook — the scales begin to imperceptibly tilt in the opposite direction.

I’m not sure I’ll ever pull the plug on Facebook as I did with cable TV, but I’m not sure I could rule out such a possibility either. In the meantime, you can find me there at www.facebook.com/oneluckyman. Look me up, and tell me why I should remain among the 499,999,999 (and growing) people who “like” it.

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Home of the IndiansThese are pretty big days in our house, at least for my soon-to-be 16-year-old son. Last week, he started his first job at a local grocery store, and this week he starts driver’s ed. It’s not so hard to see that, in many ways, these are significant milestones in his life, milestones that mark a time when his circle — his entire world, really — begins to expand at a pretty dramatic pace. This is just Point A, and I spend no small amount of time wondering what other waypoints he’ll pass in his lifetime, and what he will make of it all.

Usually, it’s pretty hard for me to remember that far back in my own life, back to a time when so many possibilities stretched out before me, and so few had been ruled out. Maybe that’s why, when a handful of my friends from those days took the time and trouble to put together a reunion for the Portage High School Class of 1975, my initial interest didn’t really go beyond a passing curiosity. Most of my memories just didn’t seem strong enough to warrant the 12 hour drive north from the mountains of Virginia to the shores of Lake Michigan.

But as the days passed and the friend requests kept coming in, I felt something stir, something that went beyond curiosity. Names that held only a glimmer of recognition for me began to coalesce around newly discovered memories — ill-advised road trips to Michigan, long summer days on the Lake Michigan shore, two-a-day football practices in the thick summer air, hanging out in Jungle Hall. My friend Gail played a key role here, bolstering my fading recollections with a reasonable incredulity — “How can you not remember her?” — and remarkable grace, supplying me with bits and pieces that pulled up memories from some pretty obscure corners of my brain.  And with each new recollection came the pleasure of rediscovering something I had long ago treasured, and then somehow misplaced.

That pleasure only magnified when I arrived at the country club for the reunion. There they were — my first serious crush, some teammates from the football team, the girl next door, and the pal that I roamed the streets with summer after summer after summer. Some I recognized instantly, but some I didn’t recognize until a particular mannerism or pattern of speech lifted the veil that three decades had drawn between us, leaving them there before me as clear-eyed and hopeful and young as they had been so many years before. I heard tales of triumph and tragedy, loss and gain, happiness and heartache, sickness and health. Some of these tales left me stunned, characterized as they were by uncommon courage and sacrifice. Some left me doubled over in laughter, as I had been so often growing up. And some of them left me with a profound sense of gratitude that I should know someone so loyal, so true, and so resilient.

More than 35 years have passed since our Point A — the time when we got our first jobs and slipped behind the wheel for the first time — and while we may well have felt our world expanding, I doubt that many of us could have foreseen what that actually would come to mean — how our lives would be shaped moment by moment, decision by decision. Of course it’s easy enough to look back three and a half decades later to see what went right and what went wrong, what we would do again and what we wish we had never done. But after all this time, does it really matter? Are we not, for better or for worse, precisely where we are meant to be?

Thanks in part to having reconnected with so many old friends, I’m more convinced than ever that I am, but maybe that’s just me. I am, as I’ve said before, one lucky man.

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The house on Hazel MountainNot so many years ago, I found myself checking into a hotel in Lebanon, Virginia in the late evening. Lebanon is not exactly a rural place, but it’s close enough. I was there for a funeral; this time, for an aunt. The trip was just the latest in a pretty somber string of such events, as my father’s once large family slowly shrank, succumbing to time and age. My role, as it had been more often than I liked to think about, was pallbearer, a role I had played with such frequency that I was no longer taken aback by the surprising heft of a coffin, even when toted by six or eight strong men.

As I filled out the registration card and pushed back across the counter, the clerk — a kindly woman about my mother’s age — looked it over, then reached out and rested her age-speckled hand across my forearm.

“Are you one of Maudie’s?”

Here’s what you need to understand. First, I had never laid eyes on the night clerk in my life. Second, while I am indeed one of Maudie’s — Maudie being my grandmother — I have never lived in Lebanon. Never lived anywhere near Lebanon. And finally, Maudie — God rest her soul — passed away long before this encounter.

But this woman at the night desk  — this stranger — had noted my last name, sensed my muted grief , and instantly understood that I was connected to that place in some way, and that some small part of that connection had been severed. And she knew this in a way that surpassed even my own knowing.

“Yes,” I said. “Maudie was my grandmother. Aileen was my aunt.”

“Turrble,” she said, gliding over the embedded vowel. “So sad.” She extended my key — a solid brass affair on an oversized plastic fob — over the counter. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

This memory has been on my mind a lot lately and, believe it or not, it’s all because of Facebook.

It’s not so much that I feel a part of a similar community online. After all, while social media can do many things and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of them, it can’t replicate that tangible and generational connection that I experienced that night.

But I’ve had the good fortune to reconnect with a couple dozen friends from high school over the past few months (Portage High School, Class of 1975, if you really want to know) and from time to time, this same group of friends will post pictures of themselves together at a restaurant or some other venue not far from where we all grew up. Sometimes there will be three or four of them, sometimes more. Sometimes it’s all men, sometimes all women, sometimes families.

What strikes me about these photos is that these people — some of them my oldest friends — are all there. In that very same, very specific place. A place where they have grown up. Gotten married. Had kids. Lost jobs. Gotten other jobs. Enjoyed their grandkids. They are rooted there in a way that I sometimes believe that I — who have had more addresses than I can count, some of them on the other side of the globe — may never experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bemoaning my fate. I’ve seen much of the world, and more importantly, I am blessed to have a wife who is my home, my community, my connection — no matter where I am.

But some day, a man or a woman far younger than I am will walk into an establishment somewhere in northern Indiana and maybe — just maybe — someone will look them over and ask them — are you one of Rich and Gail’s? Or Doris and Chuck’s? Or Tom and Marlene’s?

And they will know where they belong.

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Is it just me, or is anybody else feeling the boundaries of their personal and professional lives becoming more porous? My friends are my colleagues, my colleagues are my contacts, my contacts are my peers, my peers are my friends, and so on and so on. Smarter folks (like Julien Smith and Chris Brogan) call this the blending of social constructs, but no matter what you call it, I think it’s critical if you want to get anything out of social media.

Okay, scratch that — maybe not anything. After all, I suppose some folks find value in simply staying connected in these new ways. It’s kind of fun to know what my cousins in Atlanta are up to, and what my old high school friend did over the Fourth of July weekend. Either of those would certainly fall under the category of anything. But I like to get a bit more out of it, frankly.

Take Twitter, for example. I don’t follow a ton of people, but those I do follow are pretty interesting folks. All day long they are cluing me in to websites I should check out, pointing me to some new trend in my business or my profession in general, or guiding me to a pertinent news story. These folks aren’t selling anything. They are simply giving me a small 140 character window into what they are thinking at that moment, and since many of us are in similar businesses or professions, I often find these tiny windows surprisingly illuminating. Perhaps that’s because, like most folks, I tend to build my networks around similar interests, and so those networks are often rich with pertinent information.

True, my network sometimes tells me things that may not be so illuminating — at least not in a professional way (though I do reap great benefit from my friend Laura’s irrepressible optimism). Some of the folks I follow on Twitter, like comedian Tim Siedell, are simply good for a laugh at random moments throughout the day. And some of my Twitter feeds are straight up news. (For my money, there’s no better way to get on-the-spot news.)

But here’s what intrigues me — it all seems to add up somehow. This blended stream of incoming information seems to create something unlike anything else I’ve known. If it were all professional all the time, I’d process it with some corner of my brain that holds the “you-have-to-read-this-because-it’s-good-for-you” reflex. If it were all personal all the time, I’d process it with my “well-that’s-interesting-but-probably-not-particularly-useful” reflex. And in either case, I’d be missing out on something.

Also — lurkers, take note —  it’s worth pointing out that until you jump in, you quite likely won’t understand how this confluence works. That’s another matter I’ve been giving some thought to, and will be doing a presentation on at the fall College Communicators Association conference.

So thanks to all of you, my personafessional friends/colleagues/contacts/peers. Keep me posted.

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Center Hall, Wabash CollegeThere are ten or so of us who have returned for the reunion, and we’re having drinks on the front porch of a fraternity house on a balmy summer’s evening in the Midwest, swapping stories from decades ago. A couple of wives are among the group, and they are smiling graciously — even as the stories occasionally slip toward the ribald. These women are either supremely patient or genuinely interested. To their great credit, I can’t really tell which.

In many of these stories, our collective remembrances line up, creating a kind of living breathing memory, alive for the first time in decades, right there on the front porch in the dying light, and we’re all grateful for the confirmation that it did happen, and that it happened in just the way we remember it. But not all the stories are like that.

At the moment, my old friend Charlie’s got the spotlight. Charlie’s always been a great storyteller. In the story he’s sharing — his hands in near-constant motion, both punctuating and illustrating — the lead character is a young man with a fondness for white painter’s overalls and a KISS poster above his study desk. All around me, friends are smiling and laughing as they remember this young man, and as they do so, their eyes turn to me.

“No way,” I say. I’m sure they have me confused with someone else, but the more I insist they are wrong, the clearer their memories become. Yes, really, they say. It was me. Eventually, the cumulative detail in their recountings knocks the plaque off of some small corner of my brain, and I recall not only the white overalls, but the green and white polo shirt I liked to wear underneath them.

This was not quite what I was expecting. I mean I knew I would get glimpses into both the past and present lives of my friends. That was something I was really looking forward to, and I was not disappointed. As I said in an early post, it turns out that they are as interesting as I remember them, and their lives bear that judgment out. But I hadn’t anticipated this other phenomenon, the one that began there on the front porch and carried on late into the evening and early morning hours.

As it turns out, in some small way, our younger selves remain alive in the memories of our old friends, and if ever they have occasion to share those memories, we may catch a glimpse of a vaguely familiar stranger there.

Some of these glimpses give me pause, for the details of the stories would seem to call into question my judgment, my ethics, my morality, and more.

But other remembrances strike a different, and thankfully, more positive note. A former classmate recalled a time when I unwittingly spoke for the whole class by raising an insistent and firm voice of dissent when we were being asked by a young and inexperienced assistant professor to swallow some cockamamie academic theory whole.

Either way, these stories are instructive, for I’m encouraged to see how far I’ve progressed from my impetuous youth, and both surprised and heartened to see how closely I’ve adhered to a set of core values that I developed during those years.

In both cases, I have my friends — and the occasion of a thirty-year reunion — to thank for it.

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Center Hall, Wabash CollegeLet me be up front about something — I’m not real big on the whole reunion thing. I’ve long believed that those that I really cared about I would keep in touch with. The others — the folks that I would only see at a reunion? Well, as much as our shared experiences may have helped form me, that was then, and this is now. There’s really not much connection between the two.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Over the years I’ve managed to lose touch with all kinds of people, and it’s certainly not because I don’t care about them. It’s just such bloody hard work, it seems. First, you have to be pretty mindful to maintain regular contact with folks who aren’t in your immediate sphere, and then, if you don’t maintain regular contact, there’s all that catching up to do.

So I’m not very sure what made me decide to drive ten hours northwest to Wabash College to attend my thirty year college reunion. Maybe it had something to do with a critical mass of my closest friends who were coalescing around the event. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my birthday was over the same weekend. Or maybe it was just a sense I had that, at 52 years old, it might not be such a bad time to catch up.

I did catch up, and I’m happy to report that my friends were as funny, intelligent, interesting, and downright decent as I remember them. They’ve all accomplished much, yet still carry within them a kind of curiosity about how the world works, the kind of curiosity that was formed — and continues to be informed — by our liberal arts education. Our conversations were nostalgic, current, funny, serious, irreverent, thoughtful, flippant, and — often — earnest. It was this latter quality that struck me the most, as it is a quality which, I must shamefully confess, doesn’t seem to crop up in many of my casual conversations any more.

Over just 36 hours or so, I discovered much about these men — their triumphs, their disappointments, their wives, their children, their work, their beliefs. Such is to be expected, I guess, at an event whose primary purpose is to facilitate such catching up. But here’s what surprised me. Over the course of this brief time, I caught up with someone else, someone I haven’t been in touch with for a long, long while — me.

More on that later.

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Hey, I’ve got friends. I bet you do, too.  I don’t see them very often — sometimes never. But I know what kind of day they’re having. I know when they’re hungry, when they’re upset with their dog, when they’re running late to pick up their kids. I even know when they make new friends.

I know all this because of Facebook, of course.

Like many folks my age, I’m pretty late to the game and I’m still not quite sure what makes the whole experience so … well … interesting. But I’m learning. And the more I learn, the more … well … interesting it becomes. It’s a new way of knowing people, a new way of keeping up with people, a new way of interacting with people. And, so far, on a personal level, I get that.

But these days, most of my thoughts about Facebook have less to do with how people interact with people, and more to do with how organizations interact with people. That is, after all, my job, and has been for a long time. And if you’re in my line of work — and I know that at least a few of you reading this are — I’m guessing you’re thinking a lot about this, too.

Maybe it’s just me — I am, after all, an old-ish guy — but I tend to compartmentalize all the noise that comes into my life. I process information differently depending on the source. I don’t watch commercials in the same way I watch the show. I don’t listen to an acquaintance that I barely know from another department  in the same way I listen to my boss. And I don’t listen to the teller at the bank in the same way I listen to my son describe his evening at his church youth group.

But part of the appeal of Facebook for me is that the medium encourages me to find a new way of processing all that information, a way that’s far more analogous to a background hum, a hum that represents the life of my acquaintances going on and on and on, day in and day out. It’s the hum of the world going on around me, and while I may not have much of a role in it, I find it oddly comforting. It’s like the white noise that some people rely on to sleep. It’s there, constantly coloring the background, never rising to any kind of urgency.

But what if, in the midst of all those lives humming along, I get an update from the coffee shop I frequent, or the American Shakespeare Center, or some other institution that I happen to be a “fan” or a “friend” of?  Sure, I know there are tweaks that I could make that would limit what information comes in from what sources, and that by simply not “friending” an organization, I can get out of Facebook more or less what I want to get out of it.  But if I don’t take that step? Those messages are like an air horn amidst that reassuring white noise, and I’m not a big fan of air horns.

Some businesses and some communicators have  figured out this dilemma — how to use what are essentially person-to-person networks to deliver institution-to-person messages. But for my money, the more successful they become, the more the medium changes and the more noisier it gets. And what then?

Maybe my friends know what then. If they do, I’ll hope they’ll Facebook me to let me know.

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