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Social Personas Matter

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is quoted as once having told a reporter, "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." I found myself thinking about that statement recently, after Facebook finally made it possible to post status updates to select groups of people--presumably, based on the different identities one has, depending on who one is speaking to.

The quotation itself is na�ve, but it's also something a 20-something might be expected to say. When you're young, it's easy to throw off conventional expectations and behaviors; it's also natural to think that the new way of doing things is, of course, the better way of doing things. But with age, usually, comes maturity. This is true for Zuckerberg (one hopes), and more importantly, it is true for Facebook.

As Curtis Sittenfeld noted in an op-ed in this past Sundays Times, grown-ups have many more than two identities. There's employee, friend, parent, child, sibling, colleague, PTA member, angry traveler, happy camper, political voice, and so on. We act differently depending on who we are at any given time--and, more critically for social relations, who we are speaking with at any given time. As Sittenfeld wrote, the "impulse to act differently with, say, my friend from grad school and my husbands aunt--to adjust my personality to fit the situation and the other person--is an example of good manners, not bad ones."

I don't know whether Zuckerberg has yet gained enough experience to realize that relationships require nuance and care, rather than a single personality that bulldozes its way through all interactions. But I do know that Google+ forced Facebook to make a change most users have been clamoring for for years: the ability to send status updates to select groups of people, based on their relationship to you. No longer do your kids need to know about the rocking party you attended last night, the one where you got drunker than you've been since they were born; no more worrying about whether your boss will see the post about how annoying work can be; no more boring your friends with links to informative webinars and articles on topics they know nothing about.

While social networking sites like Facebook have encouraged us all to be more collaborative in nature--sharing information openly, cloud-sourcing ideas--the technology can't and shouldnt replace basic rules of human interaction. Technology can change the medium, but it cant always change the message. The faster we, and the designers, learn this, the more useful the technology will be.