UserInterface_SQI remember when I used to say Microsoft Office was my user interface, because the vast majority of my time on the computer was spent creating, revising or reading Word docs and PowerPoint presentations and almost all of my communications and organizing took place in Outlook, which held my email, calendar, contacts and task lists.

Google, with Chrome OS, has attempted to promote the idea that the web browser is the user interface, the only application you really need. With web mail, web-based productivity applications and social networks, it’s certainly possible to stay in the browser all the time and still do a lot.

In fact, for many people today, the social network itself has become the primary interface – replacing email, texts and phone calls with private messages, and replacing email discussion lists, news groups and web boards with Facebook or G+ groups.  Some people don’t even bother to check their local and national news web sites anymore; after all, if something important happens in your town or in the world, it’s bound to show up as a post in your social feed. But are we narrowing our scope of information (and maybe our minds) by spending so much time on our social site of choice?

I’m not suggesting that we give up our Facebook, Twitter and G+ habits. I’m certainly not advocating that companies block those sites, as some have done. Social networks can be mindless time-wasters or they can be valuable sources of information. Like most technologies, they’re simply tools that can be used for good or not-so-good purposes. If the social network is to become the user interface of the future, we have to find ways to use it more intelligently.

To me, that means two things: 1) exerting control – over what you share and with whom, what posts you see and from whom, and how you spend your time there, and 2) using social networking tools in conjunction with other resources to get the best value for the time invested. I use the social networks in conjunction with Outlook and OneNote. All of them are open (spread across my three 27 inch monitors) all the time that I’m working. For example, when I see a useful/relevant piece of info on Facebook, I copy and paste it into OneNote so I can keep it (one of the drawbacks of social sites is that information flows by in the stream and gets lost, never to be found again). I also have “boilerplate” text in OneNote that I sometimes copy and paste into Facebook. Why spend time answering the same question from different people over and over?

Social networking has two parts: there’s the social part and there’s the networking part. Some people use it primarily to socialize. They share the minutia of their lives with their friends – where they go, what they do, photos of pets and kids and travels and food. They post recipes and funny videos and memes that express their thoughts, both trivial and profound (I think it’s interesting to consider how much you can discern about a person’s attitudes, beliefs and general state of mind solely from the memes they post, but that’s probably fodder for a different article at a different time).

Then there’s the networking part of the equation. That’s about making contacts who can directly or indirectly be useful in helping you to achieve your goals, both personal and professional. Some social networks, such as LinkedIn, are completed dedicated to this purpose. Others, such as Facebook and G+ and Twitter, can serve the same purpose when you put some thought into how you use them. Using Facebook as a professional networking tool doesn’t mean you have to give up also using it to exchange family gossip with grandma – but it does mean figuring out a way to separate your business networking from your personal networking if you want to get the most out of both.

One option that some people favor is creating two separate user accounts, one for friends and one for work colleagues. To me, that’s a less-than-optimal (a.k.a. kludgy) solution. You have to log off one account and onto the other, or keep two different web browsers open with the different accounts logged in. People get confused; your friends and family members will want to join your work account and co-workers may feel slighted that they’re segregated and not allowed to be friends with your “real” account. Besides, it’s technically a violation of the terms of service.

To me, the better alternative is to learn how to manage your posts on your one social network account. Facebook lets you create lists of friends and you can decide which lists you want to share each post with. Google+ does the same thing with “circles.” Get in the habit of setting permissions on every post you share. It only takes a moment or two and once you’re in the habit, it becomes just part of the process. This way, a post related to work goes only to those people on your “Company” list, more general ones about the business you’re in goes to “Company” and “Industry” friends, while those recipes and pet pics are seen by “Family” and “Friends but Not Acquaintances” so they don’t clutter up your boss’s news feed, and your really personal “woe is me; just had a big fight with my spouse” posts are only shared with your “Close Friends” list.

Managing your posts means not only thinking about the ramifications for yourself but also how your posts might affect your friends. That means being judicious about tagging people and not posting photos or stories about others without being certain it’s okay with them. It also means knowing the difference between when to post something on another person’s wall and when to send that message privately. Because the thing about a network is its interconnectivity. Just as our computers can impact other computers on the same network, people on the same social network can have unintended effects on the lives of others who are part of their social networks.

In the roughly three decades during which computers went from being uber-expensive business tools to obligatory household items, we’ve gone from interfacing with the computer itself to using it as an interface to another very populated world. The interface is still evolving and in the future is likely to be even more integrated with our non-electronic lives. When we interact with our computers mostly by talking instead of typing (or someday, by simply thinking), the whole concept of a user interface may change dramatically.