Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Are we becoming (global) villagers?

[ This post is a slightly modified version of the original note that I posted upon joining American Business Media's social network, seeing how quickly it was being embraced by the leadership at some very traditional media companies. ]

I used to always be amazed at the concept of personal space in the tangible world. In a crowded subway one would not mind someone breathing down one's collar. We learn to tune out the noise of a crowd and be able to drown ourselves in a book or in personal music. In the suburbs however, a friendly neighbor can border on the nosy depending on the proximity and frequency of interaction.

I therefore ponder over the the concept of personal space on the web and what is considered an acceptable boundary of personal information. When individuals are open to having strangers online 'follow' them on twitter, I begin to wonder where one draws a line on dimming the lights on one's professional time and taking a break for some quiet time to be spent with one's family, with one's near and dear ones, and with oneself. Quiet time is essential for recharging the brain. It is essential for creative work. When everyone we know gets on LinkedIn or Facebook or other social media that can comb an addressbook and send an invitation to a whole group, it is hard to choose to be left behind, and it is hard not to rethink the concepts of personal space and privacy.

I have heard that keeping a journal, whether on a blog or in a book is considered therapeutic and beneficial to the writer's well-being. Perhaps social (and now business-social media) is helping the world become more accepting of friendly neighbors when they lower their guard collectively to share more and more personal information. Perhaps, as a society we are gently being steered into a place where we are not so hung up on privacy and learn to share thoughts and things to make the world a better place.

Some years ago, I took my parents on a visit to a village in southern India where my father had spent a part of his childhood. We stopped our car to ask for directions. A villager on a bicycle offered to help. I did something one would never do in a city. I swapped seats with him. I followed the car on his bicycle, and he sat in the car giving directions to the driver. Not only did he know the elderly aunt and cousins we were visiting in the village, but also shared a whole lot of details about every house in the village that would never have crossed our city-bred minds because it was none of our business. However, that is the essence of village life. Your life is everybody's business. They are always there to help the family in need. They clobber the store-owner who scalps a customer who often happens to be a neighbor or a friend of a neighbor. There are no pretences, no false images one can sustain, and the concept of privacy is very different from what we see in big cities.

Online social media, in my opinion is pushing us to make the world a smaller place, a cozier place, making it more like a village. Perhaps we are beginning to see a widespread manifestation of the term 'global village' only now. We are indeed becoming 'global villagers'.