Monday, November 21, 2005

Our networks are privileged information

I recently did a social network analysis for a membership association as part of a presentation on "professional vs. personal networking." (E-mail me for a copy of the slides.) Afterwards, the coordinator of the group commented how quite of few of the most talented networkers in the room were precisely those who did not return their surveys. Whether personal or professional, relationships are privileged information, and responsible social network analysts must respect those who choose not to divulge. For an in-depth discussion of SNA ethics, see Borgatti and Molina's "Toward ethical guidelines for network research in organizations."

In stark contrast to those secretive networkers, many other seemingly judicious people become blatant exhibitionists in their online personas. Wendy McClure's essay "Mysteries of the Amazon," which appeared a week ago in the NY Times, is a highly entertaining confessional about the awkwardness that results when secrets meant for e-strangers fall into the wrong hands (in her case, because she is a digital snoop on her friends).

In regular life, we have developed sophisticated strategies for when to share which parts of our life stories. The online version of this is far from being worked out, but impressive progress is being made. For a look at the leading edge, see the Eclipse Higgins Project, led by Paul Trevithick of Parity Communications.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

November 13, 2005

The Funny Pages | True-Life Tales

Mysteries of the Amazon

My search through the wish lists on yielded five results. I could immediately rule out the Jeff of Athens, Ohio. "Jeff r" seemed too capricious with the shift key to be the right person, and his taste in DVD's ("The Cannonball Run"? "Aces: Iron Eagle III"?) seemed all wrong. But the third Jeff had filled out his "Unique Facts" section: "New to the city," he'd written - just as he'd mentioned at the party where I met him. "Likes: baseball, indie films, radio comedy." This definitely was the Jeff that I knew. Well, knew a little. And liked. Maybe like liked: he did, after all, want the "Freaks and Geeks" boxed set.

Confession: I am a compulsive Wish List Lurker. I go to and furtively look up the wish lists of crushes, dates, boyfriends and exes. I discover the books, CD's, DVD's and electronic goods they've earmarked as gift suggestions or reminders to buy later. Really, it's the most dilettantish form of stalking: I rifle through only their potential trash.

Jeff's profile showed that his birthday was coming up. More important, he was a Cancer, which meant he could "share a special communion on a sensual, unspoken level" with me, according to some book I have. He also added "Blink" two days earlier. I envisioned our next conversation. "Great book," I'd say. Maybe I'd point out that Malcolm Gladwell and Art Garfunkel have similar hair. Then I could mention seeing "Carnal Knowledge," which Jeff has wanted on DVD since May 2004.

But then I realized that making small talk with product placements was a terrible idea - unconscionable and creepy. Better to keep things unspoken. Yes: let him sense the special communion on his own. Meanwhile, I'd contemplate why my sixth-grade boyfriend had three expensive Calphalon pots on his wish list. (Newly divorced? I bet!)

A week later I checked Jeff's list again - had he added anything for his birthday? He had: a biography of someone named Bill Hicks and two CD's by the same person. I read the book summary to see who Bill Hicks was. Then I looked up a blind date from last fall, to confirm that he was as dull as I'd remembered. (Still with the legal thrillers?)

"I've been really getting into Bill Hicks lately," Jeff said, when I saw him at a friend's barbecue. "Ever hear of him?"

"He's.. . ." I paused, as if to think. "A stand-up comic, right? Who died a few years ago?"

Jeff's face lighted up. "You know his stuff?"

"A little," I mumbled.

"I'll have to show you his videos sometime," Jeff said. He gallantly opened my next bottle of beer for me. I noticed how nice his hands were.

I checked his list almost daily after that.

Jeff's list had some strange anomalies. Whenever I saw him I hoped he'd inadvertently divulge his reasons for listing the weirder stuff. Apparently he really did want to read "Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates" ("You know you can build a house in Arizona for, like, nothing?" he'd said), but his requested gift subscription to Civil Engineering remained a mystery.

"Do you like. . . bridges?" I asked while he walked me to the subway.

He shrugged, obviously confused.

One night I saw that the entire first page of Jeff's list had changed. He'd added "So You Want to Join the Peace Corps," "The Peace Corps and More" and four other books with "Peace Corps" in the title. I reached for the phone.

"I guess I could use a drink," he said, once we met at the bar.

I asked him how he was doing. "Great!" he said. "I mean, I don't know." He took a long swig of his beer. "I'm going to join the Peace Corps."

"Really?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said. He didn't sound very sure. "You're the first person I've told."

The first wish list I ever found was for Michael S., who dumped me abruptly in 2002. He subsequently listed a book called "I Don't Know What I Want, but I Know It's Not This." I remembered that title's bitter mantra of ambivalence now as I considered the future. Why did Jeff have to help the third world? Couldn't he just be my dopey crush? Was there anything I could do to change his mind?

Jeff had never requested the book "Dracunculiasis (Guinea worm): Menace and Management," but what if he received it anyway? "SAW YOUR WISH LIST," the Amazon card would read. "YOU MIGHT NEED THIS IN GHANA." Then, of course, he'd know I was reading. But I'd come to believe that wish lists conveyed unconscious wishes as well as material ones - so maybe, secretly, he wanted me to intervene. Then again, he'd have good reason to freak out - maybe he'd never speak to me again; he'd disappear forever into the other Amazon wilderness, the one filled with poison-spitting frogs. I didn't know what to do. Luckily, I didn't have to decide.

"I'm rethinking the Peace Corps," he said two weeks later. "It was a dumb idea."

I totally agreed.

But when I saw that the Peace Corps books had been replaced with Dale Carnegie titles like "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living," I blinked at the screen. Jeff wanted to "Win Friends and Influence People," and he had no idea what a success he already was. I resolved to stop spying on him and, well, Start Living. I reached for the phone again.

"Thanks for getting me out of the house," he said at the bar. "Did I tell you my birthday's tomorrow?"

"You sure did," I told him.

Wendy McClure is the author of "I'm Not the New Me."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company