Defriending, Keeping Connections Sustainable and Maybe Superficial [en]

Yesterday I read Laurent Haug‘s post Defriendization is the future of social networks. (Laurent organizes the Lift conference, next month in Geneva — are you going? Here’s why you should.) I’m not sure I’m with Laurent about defriending. I guess I’m more of an advocate of being lazy about friending. That’s why I have 200+ people waiting in friend request purgatory on Facebook.

It is true, however, that with an online social network, you keep on dragging your past connections with you unless you defriend. In offline life, connections loosen with time, you stop seeing people, stop calling, stop writing, lose track of where they live… and connect again on Facebook. We have two movements here:

  • the fact that people tend to drift out of each other’s lives, and online social networks do not really have a way to reflect that
  • the fact that in a way, we like “collecting” our contacts, even if they’re not active anymore, as a way of making present or tangible some part of our past lives.

Sometimes, reconnecting with people who have drifted out of your life can be a great thing. I think that’s because in many cases, there is no real reason (like conflict, for example) for having drifted apart. It’s more a combination of circumstances and the absence of a strong incentive to not let the relationship dissolve.

I think that one of the obsessions with defriending has to do with having excessively high expectations about what one owes one’s connections. One of my keys to social media survival is “you can’t read everything”, which as far as relationships go translates to “you can’t have an active relationship with all your connections”.

It sucks, I know. I do believe that there is a psychological limit to the number of people we can handle in our lives (cf. Dunbar’s number). I also believe that social media, in a way, allows us to cheat with this — but it’s only cheating. It makes it easier to keep loose ties alive, and reactivate old relationships, but it doesn’t fundamentally change how many people in our lives we can really care about on a regular basis.

If you try to keep your online social network connections as meaningful as “regular friendships”, you can only fail.

I think this is part of the explanation of what I’d like to call “social media burnout” and that we’re seeing popping up all over the place. The links I’ve collected in relation to this theme are of high-profile social media people, but this happens to “normal” people too. They go wild about Facebook for a few months or a year, and then drop it all because they got sucked into it too much. Now, the people I’ve linked to above are not doing the “all-or-nothing” thing, and they might very well not be properly burned out, but they have in common that at some point, they have realised that their social media “life” was not sustainable as is. This happens outside social media too — but I think there is something specific to social media here, in the way that it dramatically lowers the energy necessary to establish and maintain connections.

Though one must never forget that the people at the end of our social media connections are real people, we must also acknowledge that it does not automatically entitle them to a deep, meaningful relationship with us. It’s OK to keep things superficial. It’s necessary, or your brain will fry.

Coming back to Laurent’s article, he points to three links that I would like to comment upon, in my typical rambly and disjointed blogging style ;-). I initially wrote a huge long post, and then decided to chop it up. Keep reading (after the lunch break):

What if Generalist vs. Expert was a Mistake? [en]

[fr] L'expertise peut être alimentée par une connaissance exhaustive d'un seul domaine, ou par une connaissance approfondie de multiples domaines. Le généraliste a également une connaissance de multiples domaines, mais elle est superficielle. On a tendance à considérer que n'importe qui ayant des connaissances dans plusieurs domaines différents ne peut être un expert -- et c'est à mon sens une erreur. L'expertise n'est pas obligatoirement liée à la spécialisation. On peut être un expert dans de nombreux domaines -- un poly-expert plutôt qu'un mono-expert.

First of all, I urge you to go and read my friend Stephanie Troeth‘s article “The generalist’s dilemma“. We had a short chat a day or two ago about the difficulty we multi-talented people face making a decision about “what do to with our lives”. I touch upon this subject a little in my recent article “What Do We Call Ourselves?“, actually, but from a slightly different angle.

“Jack of all trades, master of none.” It rings in our heads like an accusation, or worse, a verdict. The message is clear: the more varied your interests, the more diverse your talents, the less authority and expertise you can expect to have in those areas. If you’re a generalist, then clearly, you cannot be the expert we’re looking for.

I think this way of thinking is (at least partly) mistaken. Even if my areas of expertise are varied, for example, I can be an expert on the question of teenagers and social media. I will be a different kind of expert than the person who devotes their career exclusively to this question, of course — but an expert nonetheless.

As Stephanie’s post shows very clearly, skills and expertise in various areas tend to reinforce and feed each other. An obvious example of that in my career (obvious to me, maybe not to everybody) is how my initial expertise in Indian culture and history of religions helps shape me as an expert of social media and online culture. Notice how I slipped the word culture in there? That’s the kind of “expert” I am in the field. I’m not the same kind of “expert” as somebody who has a marketing or business background.

I don’t want to discount the merits of specialization — but as a process rather than an end. My teacher at university used to tell us how important it was for us to specialize in one of the “major religions” our curriculum offered us: “if you have done it once, if you have once been through the process of acquiring deep expertise on one precise topic, you can do it again and again for others; if you just keep skimming the surface, you will never learn how to delve deep into anything.”

Does this sound in contradiction to what I’ve been saying above? It doesn’t to me. You see, I think there are two kinds of “generalists”:

  • those who have acquired expertise or specialized in a wide variety of subjects
  • those who touch upon a wide variety of subjects because they only ever skim the surface.

It is a fatal mistake to confuse the two of them. And maybe we need different names to distinguish between the two.

The idea that a generalist has “superficial understanding of everything” and can in fact only be jack of all trades, master of none, is what makes “generalist” a pejorative label — what makes people say “oh, we want an expert, not a “generalist”. What they maybe don’t realize is that some people who end up calling themselves “generalists” are in fact “poly-experts” (or “multi-experts”) as opposed to “mono-experts”.

The mono-expert builds his expertise on digging deeper and deeper and acquiring an exhaustive knowledge of his subject. He runs the risk of becoming blind to what is outside his specialty, or viewing the world through the distorted glasses of excessive specialization.

The poly-expert builds his expertise on digging again and again in different fields. In addition to being an expert in the various fields he has explored, the poly-expert is an expert as digging and acquiring expertise. By creating links between multiple fields of expertise, he avoids the pitfalls of excessive specialization — but on the other hand, he is often recognized as a superficial generalist rather than a kind of super-expert (because “you can’t be an expert in all those things, can you?”)

The generalist (superficial type) is the one who has studied “a bit of everything”. For lack of inclination, ability, or simply appropriate curriculum, the generalist has never gone through the process of digging deep enough to acquire proper expertise. Shallow understanding can be more dangerous than no understanding at all, and this profile is one that nobody actually wants to fit.

There might be more to investigate about the “pure/superficial generalist” profile’s assets, though — see “What Specifically do Generalists do?” on the Creative Generalist blog; but are we talking about the same “generalist”? Is this the right word to use here? Is my threefold typology leaving anything out? I feel like I’m painting an all-negative picture of the superficial generalist, and I’m not really happy with that. (For example, think of medicine, where “general medicine” — at least in French — is a specialty.)

In any case, framing the debate as “knows one thing = specialist” vs. “knows many things = generalist” completely misses the fact that the degree of expertise has little to do with the breadth of it. What’s important is if somebody has expertise or not, and that is not measured by the absence or presence of knowledge in other fields.

Expertise, for me, means that:

  • you know more (quantity) in that field than most people (you’re in the top n%)
  • you can make sense of what you know, and know what you’re talking about
  • you know where the limits of your expertise is
  • your bring value to others that is magnitudes above what the “average joe” with some hobby-knowledge of the field would

(This was off the top of my head and might need another post to be dealt with properly — defining expertise.)

For some people, expertise will be nourished by comparable expertise in other fields (poly-experts). For others, it will be nourished by exhaustive knowledge of a single field (mono-experts). Both are experts. It’s then a question of personal preference which one to be or hire. However, given the prejudices against generalists and “jack of all trades”, the latter is easier to market than the former.