It takes a social network

A media technologist offers her thoughts on the power of communicating online

(Parris Whittingham)
By June Wulff
Globe Staff / August 28, 2010

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An old-fashioned telephone chat with the Brooklyn media technologist and author of "Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking."

Q. Your job is to convince me to get back on Facebook. I divorced it after two weeks when a friend wrote about cleaning her apartment.

A. I think I have a good answer. The marketing material for my book says: “Did you know that tweeting what you had for breakfast can change the world?’’ Our stories matter, and here’s our chance to share our values and experiences. Each post doesn’t make a difference, and we shouldn’t dissect those messages. Each posting over time becomes a point in a pointillist painting — we’re painting portraits of our lives. Social media require us to take that giant step back and become a little more human again, but not everything is important. Over time I’ll get a picture of this person and we start to build trust. From trust comes empathy, and the simple act of empathizing creates a slightly better version of the world.

Q. A computer helps develop empathy?

A. The same chemicals involved with cuddling and affection are released when you’re participating in social networking. The rush to social networking illustrates a primal human drive to be connected. These tools aren’t meant to replace other interactions. I knew we were at a turning point when my mom joined Facebook. She uses it to keep up with our large family. We’re really nerdy. We have a Google group, and 50 of us are on Facebook.

Q. What should we fine-tune about social networks?

A. Privacy controls need a lot of work. They’re kind of clunky and don’t necessarily represent the reality of how we need to handle our privacy. We have this false notion that there are private and public things. I said: “Mom, you’re gonna see posts that you don’t like, and that’s just how it’s going to be.’’ She said: “I know’’ in that high-pitched voice.

Q. Has Facebook changed your relationship with your mother?

A. She has a broader picture of who we are as people, not just the sugarcoated version.

Q. In your book you say that the Internet isn’t fulfilling its “disruptive potential.’’ What does that mean?

A. The Internet can be used as a political tool, not to just raise money for a campaign. It can challenge the power relationships, elevate the status of women, and radically redefine relationships. Currently it’s not doing that.

Q. So, how will you change the world with social networking?

A. The biggest thing is the difference between having our stories told by other people versus our being able to share stories with one another. It’s almost like we’re returning to a small-town mindset. People want to be connected to and rely on each other.

Q. Are we too busy to be in the same room?

A. We’re not actually that busy, and spending more time on the Internet is actually stopping people from watching TV. Social networking surpassed porn as the number one activity on the Internet, according to a study this year.

Q. I’ll friend you if I get back on Facebook.

A. Great, and I can introduce you to my mother!

Deanna Zandt will be at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Details: Interview was edited and condensed.

June Wulff can be reached at