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Ecologies of Communications Technologies

Some time in the mid 90’s, I asked Albert Lin, an MIT undergrad working with me, to please send someone an email. It was just a quick question we needed help with. He hesitated. He looked nervous. After much stalling, he wrote something incredibly formal. I was puzzled. It was, after all, just an email–right?

I talked with him about it later, and figured out what was going on. He and his undergrad friends used Zephyr for informal communication. Zephyr was a kind of instant messaging that worked at MIT before  either the Web or IM clients were invented. Undergrads used it a lot.  Grad students (like me at the time) not so much. Albert was used to using Zephyr almost exclusively, and that made email seem more formal to him–like a business letter.  For me, email felt quite relaxed and informal. Communications technologies form a kind of ecosystem, and your use of any one can affect how you use all the others.

Which brings me to PhD student Sarita Yardi’s tweet from this afternoon:

@yardi: Since switching from private to public on Twitter, I feel FB is more private now, more personal content there. (though nothing is private)

I couldn’t agree more. How you use Twitter changes how you use/feel about Facebook (and vice versa). And email and LinkedIn and IM. Like Sarita, I started off with a private Twitter feed. But after a while, I felt like it just didn’t make sense. Twitter works better public. When I switched my Twitter to public, I started to view my Facebook account as more private. My Facebook status updates are filled with cute things about my kids, what we’re actually doing… my life. My Twitter posts are more professional.

Sarita and I may be in the minority–I think most folks don’t see Twitter and Facebook as so different. PhD student Kurt Luther tweeted yesterday:

@resurgens: Almost identical feeds on FB and Twitter. Few updates/tweets are worth reading twice. Time to stop logging into one — but which?

Even if Kurt wanted to see Facebook and Twitter as different, his friends don’t. The same message shows up in both places. That ‘ecology’ of communications technologies is affected by friends’ uses as well as your own.

I’ve mentioned here before that I currently have two Twitter accounts–one public, one reserved for close (wedding-guest-level) friends. I like this approach in theory. I think it would work if my friends were doing the same thing, using two accounts. In practice, my friends are mostly using Twitter in a more professional fashion. So it feels weird to be posting personal things while they post back interesting news about new technologies. I still post a personal tidbit on my private Twitter account once in a while, but I’ve mostly given it up. The couple friends who have also tried the two-account approach have done the same.

Of course your use of communications technologies may be affected by the chance that your advisor will blog about your tweets…. All part of that ecosystem I guess!

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  1. beki70
    March 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    I sometimes think that all media also goes through an increasing level of professionalisation. Email was informal once, for some of us, but not any more. Email’s what you do with faculty! IM seems to have made a similar transition, maybe… so will facebook and twitter. I’m not entirely sure about this, but it’s a feeling I have at times!

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