Years ago, I asked a friend of mine if he'd seen a blog post by a mutual friend.
"I don't read his blog," he told me.
I was surprised. These two had known each other for years, and hung out in person a few times a month. I inquired further.
"He's one of my oldest and best friends, but I don't like who he is on his web site. He comes off so differently than the person I know, and I don't like that version of him."
Today, replace blogging with Twitter and Facebook, and I understand this sentiment better than ever.
When you follow someone online who you adore in person, it's a gamble. In the best case, you gain a magical social sixth sense about your friend's life and work that enhances the relationship. In the worst, they turn out to be an irritating exhibitionist, religious/political/Crossfit/[insert current trend] fanatic, or strident wanna-be thought leader. And it makes you love that person less.
The "unholy mix of exhibitionism and voyeurism" that is social networking can have the opposite of the intended effect. When social tools alienate friends more than connect them, we've failed.
When we do, the responsibility is on the platform as well as the people on it. When a platform encourages thoughtlessness, reductionism, popularity contests, and feedback loops that reward viral soundbites or dumb jokes, its users will run with it.
But we don't have to. We get to decide how we show up every day online, where our words and pictures and links and commentary is permanent and beamed to dozens, hundreds, and more and more often, thousands of people—to greater effect than we may know.
It's also on you and me to demand that our platforms get better—to facilitate more thoughtful interactions, empower people to combat meanness and bullying, to help people share their real, awesome selves. One of the things I happen to think is missing from our networks is a mirror that shows you what you're doing there. I'm working on my take on that mirror right now and some days I don't like what it shows me.
The truth is, exhibitionist-me can be a real jackass sometimes. If you see her online, let me-me know and I'll work harder on keeping it real.