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Social Networking, or Social Fragmenting?

Rebecca Thorman's blog post about how social media doesn't create a new generation of leaders remains embedded in my mind as prophetic beacon of how all of this online networking may not be getting us as far along as we'd like. Two magazines I've recently read prove she's right.

In last month's Wired Magazine, Tim Harford explains why new technological tools, which intend to eliminate the importance of geography when it comes to collaboration, actually do just the opposite. As wonderful as email and wall posting are, it doesn't decrease our need for human interaction. Harford writes:

Business is more innovative, and its processes more complex. That demands tacit knowledge, collaboration, and trust – all things that seem to follow best from person-to-person meetings.

In other words, if you're going to do work, you may need to meet people in person. As Harford correctly points out, business travel isn't dying out, and air travel is at record highs.

Likewise, two items of note jump out in this month's Fast Company (which is the best magazine you could be reading if you want to know anything about anything). We'll start at the end.

Rob Walker's back page column points out how online marketing may not live up to the hype. Even with Facebook's Beacon advertising and marketing program, a targeted market may be elusive. Sure, lots of folks are sharing information on their profile, but perhaps they're omitting what it is they really need, thus leaving advertisers in the lurch. And that's if you’re lucky; some folks might lie on their profile outright.

Secondly, an excerpt from Richard Florida's new book is a perfect compliment to Harford's article, in that he also highlights the importance of geography in today's global economy. He departs from Thomas Friedman's groundbreaking theory that the world is flat and instead suggests a spiky world, where peaks of innovation are cropping up in selected areas. Even if similar types of folks link themselves digitally by being 'friends,' Florida points out the importance of linking via geographical proximity:

Geographic concentration encourages innovation because ideas flow more freely, are honed more sharply, and can be put into practice more quickly when innovators, implementers and financial backers are in constant contact. Creative people cluster not simply because they like to be around one another or prefer cosmopolitan centers with lots of amenities (though both things tend to be true). They cluster because density brings such powerful productivity advantages, economies of scale, and knowledge spillovers.

So perhaps all of this technological innovation isn't taking us as far as we think it is. Maybe it's just a better way to play Scrabble.

As someone who runs a digital property, I'm constantly looking for what all this means for CoolPeopleCare and our mission to enable people to change the world. Yeah – we've got the Facebook fan page, we've got the MySpace profile, we Twitter and we blog. But why do we do all this, especially when we believe in the power of the offline community so much and that change happens best face to face?

Because we have to be where people are. And people now gather online. Even if the ultimate action we're soliciting is one of offline, real world, or analog behavior, the doorway into people's minds is a digital one.

So by all means use social media and use it well – but don't expect it to save the world in an instant. Countless individuals are finding that social networks could lead to social fragmenting. Rebecca's found that social networks don't create new leaders. Even if there is a digital doorway, the pathway to change has to still be traversed with two very real feet.

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