In his keynote last Wednesday at AIIM, Andrew Lippman from MIT's Media Lab pointed out that not that long ago we went to work then we went home and watched TV and the two worlds never collided, but toda social networking tools and mobile devices are blurring the lines between work and home.

He said, "Social networks are important because they break the notion of what IT is about and they break the notion of work and play." It's so true, but what does it mean for us as we design social networking tools moving forward?

One Device to Rule Them All

Mobile computing has evolved quickly. If you think back as recently as 2007, the first generation iPhone had only the apps that came with it. It's only been a year since Apple released the first iPhone SDK (as I wrote about it in App Store's Astounding Ascent...). Twitter is just 3 years old. It's only really found mainstream acceptance in the last several months (as I wrote about in Twitter's Popularity Hits New Heights). We are moving very quickly here, but as we do, the ways we socialize are changing dramatically. Suddenly these iPhone (and other devices) apps let us access our social networking tools wherever we are and Lippman says this has changed the way we think about our work and home lives, breaking the barrier between them.

To illustrate this, he gave an example of people who walk around with two cell phones, one for work and one for play. He thought this was as absurd as having two cars for the same purpose. He suggested that the notion that there are things we do for work and for play that are separate is gone and that the current generation of users certainly doesn't function this way. In fact he said, "The notion that there are things you do for work and play--the kids engaged in these things, they don't make that distinction. Very plainly that distinction has to disappear."

Do We Need More Powerful Social Networks

When I tweeted about this from the Keynote floor, a colleague of mine, Tish Grier, questioned the need for these tools when she said:

"That's bizarre. Social apps part of normal life? When it comes down to it, we really don't need these things."

She's right of course, but that's not really the point. The idea is that we have always had social networks, groups of people we interact with in real life and more recently in our virtual lives. The virtual social networks provide a rich and growing tool set to interact electronically. We can use Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, LinkedIn. We can email and text and instant message--all from our computers and mobile devices. The idea isn't that we need social apps, it's that they give us new ways to communicate with one another, and it's clear that people like them and use them.

But of course, to Grier's point, there are large numbers of people who have never stepped foot in the virtual world except for using email, and only use face to face and telephone communication and it's important to remember that too.

What Happens to Privacy?

It seems that the notion of privacy as we once thought of it is all but gone. That the price we pay for this ability to communicate with each other on this scale is that we have to give up our ideas of privacy. Of course, we can still meet in small groups at the local bar or restaurant and this isn't going away, but the ability to communicate with people across the world, to access people whom we would otherwise have had no way of knowing, to make connections and build relationships without having to be face to face offers a powerful way to connect with one another.

As Grier said, we don't require these tools. We absolutely don't have to have a mobile internet device in our pockets and we don't need to use Twitter and other social networking tools, but when we do we have richer and more engaging experiences than we ever could have by simply gathering around the watering hole. We may be making substantial trade-offs for this convenience, but Lippman thinks they are extremely important because communities provide a way to build diversity into a system that has become far too brittle and monolithic.

It's possible that these social networking tools are just the beginning of something, that they could lead to ways of finding and interacting with one another we never imagined, but whatever happens, you can't dismiss these tools easily. They are taking us somewhere exciting, but we have to work out how we deal with the fading boundaries these tools have left in their wake and that means rewriting our social rules as we go along.

Social networks annoy me. I think a lot of people spend WAY too much time on them. I don't really care what someone has for lunch unless they have lunch with someone famous. Some people have a lot of time on their hands for this stuff. I can't tell you how angry it makes me for my wife to spend hours on Facebook.

This brings up a good point of the personal choice to maintain boundaries between work and personal life. There are some individuals who use social networking for personal life. There are masses (and growing) numbers of individuals who use social media for professional networking. It's up to the individual to determine the boundaries they feel comfortable with. For instance, I use Twitter for professional networking. I don't use Twitter to keep in contact w/ my old college buddies. I prefer the good old telephone to do that. :-)
Gen Y, the largest workforce since the babyboomers, continually boast their desire to have flex work schedules b/c they enjoy mixing play and work. If this is true, the trend of work becoming more than a 9-5 job will be the fuel for additional tools that interweave work & play. Again, I believe it is a personal choice how someone uses Social Media. Though I do believe, we will see a growing trend of expectations to be linked in on and off the clock.

In fact, I think many of us already are, but you're right, how much you allow that to happen should be up to the individual. I don't like to give my cell phone number to people because I don't like to be that accessible to people other than my family, but I use my iPhone to send Tweets and check Facebook. It is an interesting set of issues and we will need to work out those boundaries as we move forward.