In his weekly email newsletter, George Siemens wrote/quoted:

This is one of the more insightful statements I’ve come across recently – What Google Could Learning From Goffman: “When we merge social groups together, we are challenged to manage our disclosures across these groups, which have different norms of propriety.”

The social software I use regularly – Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin – allows me to form different social groups. I have different interactions with different people in each….

Google, however, smashed together different social groups with Buzz, forcing information to flow between groups that were previously distinct. Buzz’s failure was not one of only disrespecting privacy, but rather one of dishonouring social clustering.

This really hit a chord with me and I can’t help but relate this to a Seinfeld episode where George Costanza sees his ‘Worlds Collide’ when people from different social groups connect.

It gets very funny when George declares that ‘Independent George’ will cease to exist by an encroaching ‘Relationship George’.

Although Google Buzz isn’t causing my worlds to collide in such a dramatic fashion, I am keenly aware that it opens up my social communities and combines them in a way that I am not sure I’m prepared to do. Fred Stutzman calls this ‘context collapse’:

When you create a profile in a social network site, or share a stream of Tweets, you’re essentially creating a representation of an identity.  As we’ve seen time and time again in Facebook, we run into problems when identities collide during “context collapse” – when people from a different segment of your life view an identity you’ve constructed for your friends.

For instance, I tried linking Twitter to Facebook and all I did was infiltrate my non-twitter friends Facebook timelines with context-less tweets that really meant nothing to them… it lasted about 24 hours. Similarly, Buzz came out and I started chatting with a few people in it, then my daughter (a Gmail user who was quicker than I to figure out Buzz) said to me, “Dad you sure talk a lot about buzz with people.” And this got me thinking about how I’m normally very purposeful with my online identities. I think about where I say what, to whom and why… I contextualize my conversations to the tool.

It’s not that I’m hiding anything… My tweets are open to the public, so is my LinkedIn profile. Meanwhile, except for my recent updates to Facebook while on holiday, I keep that more candid, limiting my profile to students that I’m connected to, and being selective about what information I share in my profile. That said, there is nothing in my Facebook profile that I am ashamed of or that I wouldn’t want others to see, but I talk differently there to my family and friends than I do on other networks. I tend to share my blog everywhere and so that too has a different voice than with other tools in other contexts.

In his post, Stutzman paraphrases Erving Goffman:

In essence, Goffman argues that identity and interaction are performative, a concept that maps very well onto social network sites.  By “creating” identities, we’re not living dual lives, but rather engaging in a well-established performance of identity that lets us share the proper “front” in context.  We act differently on LinkedIn and Facebook because these sites have contextual norms, not because we’re duplicitous.

Later in the article Stutzman continues:

it was simply too much to ask us to configure ourselves to the technology.

By fabricating new social groupings, Google ran head-on into Facebook’s biggest problem – that of context collapse.  When we merge social groups together, we are challenged to manage our disclosures across these groups, which have different norms of propriety.

Google Buzz has mashed all these ‘worlds’ together. I don’t really want my daughter or my LinkedIn network to see me telling Seth Bowers (in reaction to him asking when I’m going to finally get on Buzz) to ‘Buzz off!’ On Twitter, with an @reply, there is context and even appropriateness in the comment (as poor as the humour may be). To my family and Facebook friends, that could easily be seen as rude, and more to the point, irrelevant when it is ‘pushed’ at them in a different setting with different norms than where the message was intended to reside.

As Seth said in his only two Buzz comments so far:

I don’t know if I need my inbox to be social…


Man Google sucks at social…

I may be wrong, and perhaps Google Buzz will catch on, but I think it has a bumpy road ahead, because the social web requires socialization, which in turn requires contexts for appropriate social norms and behaviors.

I’m not freaking out like George Costanza on Seinfeld, but I really don’t want a tool that merges my digital identities and forces my worlds to collide.

Dave and George - Worlds Collide.egg by datruss on Aviary

Cross-posted on Fireside Learning Ning: Conversations about Education.

3 comments on “Google Buzz and George Costanza – Worlds Collide

  1. Thanks Dave. I can always rely on a clear and cogent description of all things social web from you.

    I love the analogy to that Seinfeld episode. It puts a nice frame around the context collapse phenomenon. I see that video getting some good play in future web2 prezo’s.

  2. Greetings Dana,

    I had to look up cogent, a word I’ll have to use in the future… Thank you!

    Giguel Guhlin has an interesting perspective on this post, (copied here as he said he tried unsuccessfully to comment on my blog):

    Don’t Panic, Arthur or David – Confluence Ain’t All Bad

    My response, tongue in cheek certainly, follows below.

    David, sorry to hear about the imminent collision (pack your towel, Hitchhiker),
    but this may be because you’re trying to bestride multiple worlds…as
    an educator, it’s important to be the same in all worlds. In fact, if I
    were invoking some sci-fi/fantasy archetype, maybe the Gate Between Worlds (Joel Rosenberg, Guardians of the Flame) would do it..but maybe not.

    the issues you mention really come back to transparency and better
    management of your digital footprint. I think schools, businesses, are
    having trouble with this because individuals want to be naughty but
    pretend they’re nice, or vice versa. In truth, we are having to decide
    once and for all who the heck we REALLY are and remember that no matter
    whom we deal with. What a refreshing challenge.

    With that in
    mind, the importance isn’t on keeping worlds apart, but figuring out
    how to best align the planets to achieve confluence. For zealots and
    fruitcakes, planetary alignment signals end of times. For the
    well-prepared, it’s a once in a millennium opportunity.

    Some more, related thoughts online.

    What do you think?

    My response to this post follows:

    My towel is packed, though I’m not sure if I’m ready for the trip? 😉

    What a great response, although I think it poignantly makes one point and misses another.

    absolutely it is time for a collective ‘us’ to ‘clean up’ our digital
    footprint. Gone are the days when someone can post their
    binge-drinking-dope-smoking-half-or-full-naked-photos from the weekend
    and then live a ‘professional’ life on Monday to Friday. A digital
    footprint is too easy to search, too long-lasting and too transparent
    ‘be naughty but pretend they’re nice’ as you mention.

    However, I think that there are times that we are ‘appropriately different’
    in the way we converse and in the types of conversations we have in
    different contexts… and we can have different audiences in different
    places that we speak to… well, differently.

    I wore a tie,
    maybe 5 or 6 times as a Vice Principal in Canada, I haven’t come to
    school without one as a Principal in China… I hate this ‘noose’ &
    would rather not wear it, but I’m in a context where it is necessary.
    I’ll probably copy this comment onto my own blog post and share my
    feelings towards wearing a ‘monkey suit and leash’ every day… and
    tomorrow I’ll come back to school wearing my dress shirt and tie, if
    not a suit! We do and say things in different ways for different
    contexts all the time – I’m just not sure I’m ready for this confluence
    at this time? (Even though I’m completely comfortable with my digital

    In talking about this post Seth Bowers said on Twitter: @datruss I’m with you there. I need to have a different mindset when using email. Like all good teachers teach us – know your audience.

    …And this summed up the point I was really trying to make here… We tell students ‘Know your Audience’ – I didn’t ‘get this’ as a student, and actually didn’t ‘get this’ idea as an adult either, until I started blogging!

    Miguel is right, we have to realize that our digital footprint is there for EVERYONE and so we must be transparent in all of our digital circles. However, our conversations and relationships online have both context and specific audiences and that’s why I’m not ready for my worlds to collide the way, (not me but rather), Google Buzz has decided.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    UPDATE: March 28th, 2010
    Here is a great post on the same topic by Claudia Ceraso (@fceblog) “Context is what context does. Or is it what you do?
    Here are two issues that she identifies:

    1-Meaning is affected by context.
    2-I wouldn’t force the same info to different audiences. I like letting people choose.

    And I agree with her conclusion that, “This is not a legal conversation topic, but an ethical one. A conversation worth having, by the way.

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