Socially Awkward Networks

Last night I went to my high school’s 30th reunion. It was wonderful in ways I couldn’t have imagined and showed me that time (and perspective) can heal even wounds once made on tender hearts. 5 short years ago I wouldn’t have been ready to look back with such a giddy goofy grin. Proof came when I found a post I’d written for Fast Company in 2008, before our last reunion, which I didn’t attend. It’s about a classmate who wasn’t at this year’s reunion but who I might have felt differently about had she been there. Might. Here’s a reposting of that piece, not as a way to call out the awkwardness she offered. Rather, it shines light on the fact that growing up can be tough and social media has the potential to make it squirmable for years.


A WOMAN, WHO AS A GIRL IN GRADESCHOOL TAUNTED ME ENTHUSIASTICALLY, contacted me through a social network site asking if I planned to attend an upcoming reunion.

At first I didn’t think much about it. I assumed she was on some committee for the gathering of once inelegant adolescents and she was contacting me as part of her new do-good campaign.

I replied in a perfunctory noncommittal way, and tucked her married name into my mental rolodex of people to avoid calls from if they appear on callerID.

She wrote again, reporting I looked healthy in my miniature photo and that I must be happy, how did I do it? Then she asked if we could connect directly on the site so we could correspond again.

When I mentioned to a colleague her reappearance in my life, he asked if I planned to tell her off. And what, I though, explain I’m not keen to chitchat with someone who went out of her way to torment me for a decade and whose young face flashed before my eyes when Mean Girls debuted?

Clearly she’s unaware I harbor less-than-friendly memories of her, and in hindsight I can see her inhospitability was probably not aimed at me alone. But BAM here she was.

This uncomfortable modern scenario raises an important question.

Should our social networks include only people we like, those we want to socialize with, and as my friend Jimm says, “Those we’d agree to take camping”? I don’t believe they were designed to be personal discomfort-free zones. Do you?

Although nobody chooses to spend precious time with overtly unlikable people, part of the power from loose and tight ties, is the depth and breadth of our networks: who we know who knows others and so on. The people just beyond our close ties’ collective intelligence represents our potential for connective intelligence.

If this former mean-girl (who has been nothing but sweet and cheerful in our recent communiqué) has a relationship with someone who can help me close an important deal for a client, it should not matter she invited my friends to a slumber party in fifth grade while stridently leaving me out. However, what about announcing to everyone in the junior high cafeteria I’d sneezed peas out my nose (which I hadn’t, it was mustard!)? That matters, yes?

All social situations offer us the opportunity to be uncomfortable in unexpected ways. We shouldn’t expect online social networks to be any different. It just seems easier to avoid the awkwardness when there’s no auto-reminder in seven days you haven’t yet engaged.


p.s. No, the mustard (or peas) doesn’t matter anymore. I accepted her friend request after 5 years. I’m looking forward to healing that wound, too.

photo credit: Mallix, My Twitter Class of ’08

Originally published in Fast Company’s Learning Resource Center on April 7, 2008.

Socially Awkward Networks