Limits to Social Networking: Six Stages of Reconnection

In a few short days, given the impending Thanksgiving holiday, I can reliably predict that throughout cyberspace, my American contacts will be sending out blanket messages saying how “Thankful” they are for “all my good friends”.

These messages will go out, of course, to every one of the hundreds of on-line “friends” most of them have.  I won’t be joining in, but I have no doubt that I will be on the receiving end of this process.  And why not?  Social networking, so we observe, is potentially limitless, so why not activate all those connections once in a while?



People, on the other hand, and despite our best intentions, are inherently limited.  Time and attention, those most valuable of all resources, are hardly more available now than they were 25 years ago, back in the analog age.  And when we attempt to overcome our limitations by using the crude tool of mass communication to nurture individual bonds, it can backfire.  To illustrate the tragedies that can result from the conflict between the limitless and the limited, here is an example of the all-too-common “rubric of reconnection,” as it might be experienced by, say, a typical 43-year-old:


1)      Hey, you’re still out there and we even remember each other…let’s be “friends.”


I’m so happy to reconnect with Shelley on-line–I always really liked her.  What has it been, 25 years?  We sure had some good times back in high school.  It really was a pretty good school, for all we used to talk it down.  Hey, look – she’s listed as single.  I know she was married with a couple of kids. Wonder what that’s about!?  Lives in Florida…interesting; she’s not old enough to be retired….I’ll have to send her a note and also look at the rest of her info, as soon as I have a moment.



1)      Wow, don’t we have a lot in common, even after all this time!?


Hey, there’s a post from Shelley on her daughter’s basketball team victory.  Congrats!  Hmm…I was going to look at her profile….Wow, she likes Jane Austen…and Earth, Wind and Fire…neat!  Real classics.  And she’s a political progressive, like me.  And we’ve got 27 friends in common—the whole gang from back in school.  Wow, Shelley, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed you!  Let’s arrange a F2F.  How about Skype?


2)      Face-to-face…well, almost…



Wow, what a blast!  Skyped with Shelley for almost an hour.  She looks exactly the same. I can’t believe we lost touch – can’t let that happen again. It’s so great that the technology allows us to re-establish our friendship. We even talked about getting our families together.  I know with us in Switzerland and them in Florida it won’t be easy, but we’ll make it happen.  Anything is possible, especially where old friends are concerned.  You know, “Make new friends and keep the old; one is silver and the other gold….” I am not going to lose this opportunity to rebuild our relationship….


3)      I can’t believe it’s been a month since our last online convo….


Shelley and I haven’t caught up since our Skype convo, except for reading each other’s posts every few days …She had some kind of crisis at work and I’ve been dealing with two stressed out kids as well as a heavy teaching load.  She did send me a couple of invitations, but I didn’t get back to her in time.  I saw online today that she’s going on vacation to Jamaica for the next two weeks.  I sent a “have a great time” message.  Wish we had had time to talk before she left, since I’ll be on the road working flat out by the time she gets back.  Oh, well…at least we’ve reconnected….we’ll get there!



4)           “ year      “….


Where does the time go?!?! Facebook told me it’s Shelley’s birthday so I posted a “happy birthday” note on her wall – so did 85 of her other “friends” of course…. I don’t know how many of her posts I may have missed, or how many of mine she’s had a chance to see.  I do post some weird things – some of them must be pretty boring, and a few maybe even offensive, to some of my 382 friends.  Oh well, you are who you are—I prefer to let my friends see my whole self, warts and all.  Happy birthday Shelley!  Let’s talk soon….


5)      Hey, when did s/he de-friend me??



I hadn’t looked up Shelley since her birthday a few months ago.  Now I notice I’m not seeing her posts any more.  Hey!  She’s not on my friends list….she must have de-friended me….Ouch!  I wonder what that was about?!  Did I say something to offend her?  Well, we’re adults; we make our own choices.  That’s really a pity though…I had so much enjoyed reconnecting with her.  Guess we’ll never be getting back together now….



Ouch indeed.  Of course, it doesn’t always happen like this.  We hear of everything from job referrals to romantic affairs to entrepreneurial ventures to suicide pacts being undertaken by “reconnected” friends…but what of the vast majority of reconnections?  What happens to them?  Well, if human limitations still apply, I think we can safely predict a substantial proportion fail to achieve their potential, even if they rattle on for years with a bare minimum of direct communication, rather than the “reconnect — disconnect” illustrated above.



So, are “mature adults” better off reconnecting online—haphazardly, in large numbers–or not?  Would we be better off staying out of the fray altogether, leaving it to the digital generation?  Like so much else in a world filled with choices, I think this is a matter of expectations:  When we expect too much from social media—or more accurately, from ourselves and others who use it—we are invariably disappointed.  Perhaps our sons and daughters are better at understanding the tradeoffs inherent in the use of social media, and have more reasonable expectations of it.  To see it as the blunt tool it is, and to recognise that relationship-building—or re-building—always takes time and one-to-one effort, are the key to admitting our limitations, concentrating our energy on the few relationships that matter most to us—and making best use of our potentially “limitless” connections.


About the author

Maury Peiperl is Professor of Leadership and Strategic Change at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he teaches in the MBA program and the Orchestrating Winning Performance Program, as well as directing and teaching on tailored executive education programs for numerous companies. From 1992 to 2004 he was a professor at London Business School.