February 2, 2009

Dispatch from the GenX Bridge

I’ve really been feeling my Gen Xness the last few months. I dislike framing Web 2.0 or Library 2.0 as generational issues (I think it has far more to do with whether you’re used to creating and sharing content overall), but the rise of Twitter and FriendFeed in particular have made me feel like even more of a bridge because I get stretched thin trying to explain both sides of an issue to two groups who aren’t really talking to each other about these things. Like Johnny Cash, I walk the line.

As a GenX bridge, one side of me understands the Boomer confusion at these public posts and wonders why these folks can’t just call, email, or text a person who could actually do something about the problem they’re encountering. Recently, I felt this most acutely when Jason Griffey took the time to write a blog post disagreeing with two rules for submitting questions to ALA presidential candidates on YouTube. I’m close enough to the traditional, Boomer norms of communication that when I first read Jason’s post, my immediate reaction was to sigh and wonder why he couldn’t have just contacted someone at MPOW to request that the rules be changed. The “direct” approach seems like the logical one for affecting change and having your voice heard.

And then the Millennial side of the bridge kicked in and I chided myself, because Jason actually cared enough to take the time to write that post instead of just a 140-character rant. He explained his reasoning in what has (surprisingly) become a long-form medium online (blogging). In hindsight, his post helped change one of the rules he disagreed with, so it was better that he posted publicly where everyone could read it and comment, including us. And honestly, some of the comments on microblogging sites are complaints that someone did try to call or email a human being and didn’t get a good response, so it’s not that these generational preferences are exclusive. Writing a blog post these days is a pretty high level of engagement, and caring enough to post a tweet or FriendFeed comment is right behind that in terms of trying to get our attention (hey, at least MPOW isn’t mediocre).

My personal lesson from these recent experiences is that it’s important for associations (and libraries) to understand that every blog post, every tweet, every FF comment is like a letter to the editor or someone standing up in a membership meeting and voicing a complaint. They’re the 21st century equivalent of a phone call or a conversation in the hallway at a conference, and we have to take them just as seriously and respond to them the same way we would those 20th century methods of communication. It’s not that Boomers want to help any less, but I think they’re used to helping people one-on-one, even online. For many members who likely trend younger, the new channels are their preferred ones for these types of comments, and not just for complaints. There isn’t anything wrong with either approach, but they’re ships crossing in the night, and they don’t lead to conversations between the two sides that would improve communication.

Sometimes I think attacking MPOW is a national sport, so it can be depressing being the person constantly relaying what’s being said about us online. But it’s important for those of us in the middle to be that bridge and find compromises that work for everyone. So I especially appreciate those folks who take the time to comment online in a constructive way (regardless of the channel), because it helps me build that bridge.

This strain isn’t new, but I’m curious to know if other Gen Xers are feeling an increase in this area due to microblogging sites? Have you found successful strategies for improving communication around these new channels? I have some ideas that I’m going to try to implement at work, and I’ll report back here over time, but I’d love to hear how others are handling being at this intersection.