A Single Context for All Social Interaction: Merely Quixotic, or Dangerously Misguided?

Posted Thursday, January 12th, 2012 at 8:31 pm

I recently read a blog post by Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, entitled “Why do we have so many lives?” In it, Mr. Widrich says:

We have a private life, a public life. We have a work life, a school life, a party life, a love life and I am sure you can name lots of others. I never understood why.… I always felt that it is hard enough to focus on getting one life right. Why create so many? (emphasis added)

This guy is a startup founder. I expect he may well be typical of the genus. And so, he makes a great example of why so many startups* seem to be promoting the “single identity” model. It’s nice that this guy feels he can have just one life — though even he admits it’s hard! But the rest of us don’t really want to deal with everyone on the same single channel.

Mr. Widrich claims that: “I can walk into a club and speak the same thoughts I have in my head to a girl, as I can to my family. And again I can speak with the same mindset to my co-founder, give an interview or play football.” Personally, I can’t help but wonder if that’s really working out for him. The pitch you use to woo an investor is quite seriously different from the kind you use to woo a woman. The way you talk to your girlfriend is very different from the way you talk to your mother or sister (I sincerely hope!).

In fact, I can’t help but wonder if this is a manifestation of Asperger’s Syndrome, or some other failure (or refusal) to understand social interaction. Regardless, it seems like a very clear example of a geek-specific sort of fallacy that — I’m starting to think — may underlie the various new systems that try to enforce single identities:

Figuring out the rules for social interaction is hard. One of the hardest parts is figuring out which rules apply in what contexts. Wouldn’t it be great to just have one context for everything?

No. No, it would not.

Most of us react with some consternation when our contexts collide unexpectedly — for example, meeting a co-worker (or boss!) at the supermarket (or worse, nightclub or bar!). Most of us don’t want our boss to see us drunk, or trying to pick people up. We don’t even really want to introduce our boss to our friends and have to try to integrate them into the conversation. Of course, being a startup founder, Mr. Widrich (like guys like Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page) doesn’t have a boss, and so doesn’t have to worry about this.

The combination of “boss privilege” and “desire of poorly-socialized people to not have to deal with so many social contexts” makes a powerful one-two punch, and it may go a long way toward explaining the recent spate of apps that try to enforce single identities. In the meantime, I’m happily using Seesmic as my mobile phone’s Twitter client, because it has excellent support for multiple accounts.

* I include Google and Facebook in this category. They still think they’re startups, they still think like startups, and they still have the startup culture and mindset, even if they’ve grown into ginormous corporations. ^back

An Addendum: If you think the desire for multiple identities and contexts is just “an old people issue”, as LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman recently described “privacy” in Davos, then ask any teenager: Would you like to hang out with your parents, in the same way you hang out with your friends? How about your teachers?

If you have any doubt what their reaction would be, you don’t know teenagers very well.

By the way, a word to Mr. Hoffman: Apparently the new common wisdom is that LinkedIn is also “for old people”, so you might want to rethink your company’s stance on privacy. And quit pissing off your own target market.

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