Saturday, January 15, 2011

Social Networks are not Therapy Sessions

I am contemplating the value (or not) of sharing our personal triumphs and challenges - and whether it is considered a weakness or strength to connect in social networks, and then share every day life, and our reflections and emotions. After all, most of the people we meet via these networks are not truly friends. And as much as we are tempted, these networks are not therapy sessions to resolve trauma of unemployment, broken code, illness, divorce, rejection, botched face lift, death, latest fight with a lover, or demise of reputation. Or are they?

We tend to put a high premium on intellectual content shared, but shy away from emotional content - as if this has less value and is inferior. And yet, books are written about 'emotional intelligence' (a barely disguised choice of words to make it more acceptable in the corporate world?). Even the latest technology, like BlackBerry's Empathy Phone is starting to recognise the fact that is emotions that makes us human and aid us in our connectedness with others - beyond the cute emoticons of Yahoo Messenger making us smile or frown. (I remember well the first discovery of using keyboard symbols on Internet Relay Chat when I first connected with friends across the world online in the late 80s).

The world is shifting towards a more person-centred as opposed to profit-centred framework for decision-making. At TED last year, Nicolas Christakis talks about 'The Hidden Influence of Social Networks and how emotions can be 'contagious' in certain areas - could we call it location-based emotion? :

But it is the comment on his talk by Theodore A. Hoppe - quoting from the South African project, 'Social Brain' - that really drew my attention: 
"For the last two decades, the model of the rational individual- 'homo economicus'- that has underpinned our faith in democracy, reliance on the market, and trust in social institutions has been consistently undermined by social psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience. The notion of a profit-maximising individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Science is now telling us what most of us intuitively sense: humans are a fundamentally social species.  The rational individual construct was not based on naivety, but on the belief that this was the best model to help us plan our economies and organise our societies. However, a variety of social, political and environmental challenges, culminating in the current economic crisis, makes this model seem increasingly unhelpful." (In the future, we need to allow for authentic expression of emotion in our social networks and in business and in public life, as opposed to seeing it as 'inappropriate'. And don't let me even start on the bias encountered in the workplace that women are 'too emotional for doing serious business').
The clever Dr Michael Lara, of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, describes an emotion simply and beautifully as 'a feeling of what happens' with the root of the word 'motere' - implying that every emotion holds in it the possibility to move us to action. (As an aside, I have seen emotions play out in social networks just recently by following the tweets on the 2011 #GeekRetreat here in South Africa. Such an interesting discourse. Read a bit about it via this blog, and comments, by Ivo Vegter: Circle of Jerks).

Sure, there is a difference between emotion, moods and temperament and we should not subject our fellow emotional human beings to our every-changing moods (we all have these) or our temperament all the time - unless we have no choice due to illness. Now, I think of my mom with Alzheimers - where the physiology of her brain is altered by this cruel destructive disease (my emotional words) and deregulation of serotonin, as well as degeneration of neurotransmitters, lead to her mood changing from angst to sadness to happiness (less often these days). And we should have such gentle and lasting understanding with loved ones suffering. The rest of us don't get to have excuses when we inflict our moods on innocent - or some times not so innocent - bystanders. And we should be held accountable for our temperament when it crashes into someone's peaceful day...

But there is a fine line between acknowledging emotion in social networks and in business or politics, and not being an enabler for ego-based erratic moods. It remains a fact that feelings/emotions lead to actions and are needed to bring some principle-centred person-friendly business practices back into fashion. (What we get often today is a soul-less appetite for productivity and consumerism, with deceptive advertising campaigns based on emotive slurs to increase bottom-lines).

So, I am still battling with the question: How much do I share of my emotional life? More importantly, why do I share - well, for now, to move to action - to contribute in a small way to changed mindsets about Virtual Worlds, Africa, Alzheimer's Disease, social media, women's rights, South African politics, civil society, and other areas so easy misunderstood. But more than that - to make sense of the world around me (my experiences) by finding that other people have similar feelings. Fundamentally, to know it is OK.  Does that make me weak? Or should emotion be reserved for music and poetry, and not for the board room or networking?  Or does sharing and expressing make me human? Both? Or does it make me strong when I embrace one of the givens of life: We all suffer and cry, and we all have pain. And it is important to be with the moment and the process in order to let it go. To deny it, is to live an illusion. To share it, is a choice - no better or worse than the person in my network that choose not to be disclose. Just, different. Maybe the key is in allowing freedom of emotion and expression?

Ps: And then there is the question on intellect - related to the company we keep - the question that could keep some of us awake: Is your social network making you stupid? Looking forward to your replies...


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