Technological Challenge

Editor’s Note : This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Here I go again sounding like a myopic dinosaur who is technophobic at best or just purely old-fashioned, but is it just me or are some of these “social networking” Web sites a little scary?

I’m talking about Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and MyLife and blah, blah, blah … these Web sites where generally anybody can post the intimate details of his or her life, with photos, to be exploited in whatever way imaginable by anyone on the cyberspace superhighway who has the knowledge and inclination to do so.

E-mail As Prehistoric As Dinosaurs

This issue came to the surface for me recently when my staff and I started talking about using these sites as a means of promoting our recreation and other city programs. We’ve been using e-mail distribution lists effectively, but as our youth-programs coordinator told me, “Most teenagers and young adults consider e-mail outdated.”

Dang, I just started to accept e-mail as a necessary evil of modern life, and now it’s a relic?

My first reaction to the social networking sites as promotional tools was, “No, absolutely not.” In my limited exposure to them, the overall impression I had--and still have to a significant degree--is negative. But then I started doing some research and found that indeed I am apparently behind the times, because everyone from Fortune 500 companies to presidential candidates are using these sites to promote themselves, their product or their cause.

This is not a reason to climb on board--we see where Fortune 500 companies and presidential candidates have landed us thus far. But it did warrant further investigation, which is where I’m at right now. So please walk with me, and let’s think this through.

An Intoxicating Tale

The first thing I note is that these sites are relatively new phenomena. Facebook, for example, was created in 2004 by an intoxicated, bored, but, no doubt, talented college student, who hacked into the college computer system to copy private material in order to compare physical appearances of students. This same student admitted he was a jerk for creating the site.

OK, so far that’s not a shining endorsement, and coupled with the fact that Fortune 500 companies and presidential candidates bought into it, doesn’t necessarily bode well for our society … but I’m being open-minded, so research continues.

Peeping Tom

One of my concerns is privacy. For example, I recently put up a guitar for sale on Craigslist, and a guy who lived in my city e-mailed back through the site wanting to see it. I didn’t know who he was, and I wasn’t about to invite him into my home without knowing, so I Googled him. The first hit that came up was his Facebook page, and in two minutes I knew his name, his occupation, his work/home schedule, his appearance and a little about his home life. It was helpful, but also a little creepy. I called him, he came over, and he bought the guitar.

Indeed, this gentleman chose to put his personal information online, but it still felt like I was peeking into the window of his home, even though he left the curtains wide open. But what if people figured out a way to use that invitation to pry into other areas of his house and steal his belongings, or worse?

In August 2007, according to leading internet news sites, the code used to generate Facebook's home and search page was accidentally made public, allowing people to read otherwise personal mail. This led to grave concerns about how secure the information on the site actually was. Of course, many people have doubts about how secure online “secure” information is, in general.

Reality Vs. Virtuality

I could go well beyond the space limitations of this column with other issues that surround the “social networking” world, a world unto itself. People are living online, forming virtual relationships when they don’t even know their real-world next-door neighbor’s name.

This is my other overriding concern: As members of the human society, we are becoming so connected in cyberspace that we don’t take the time to connect with real people.

I think that’s where recreation plays a vital role in society. We create the environment in the social network of a community that gives people of all interests and persuasions the reason to unplug from the virtual world and re-connect to the real world.

You never know what is going to pull people together outside their normal sphere of existence. It’s not always about active sports.

For example, in our city of about 36,000, we have perhaps 10,000 who consistently play in some type of youth or adult sport, and that’s a good thing. But what about the other 26,000 people? What does it take to get them out into the biosphere?

One good example is a dog park. We constructed one here about five years ago, and I admit I was skeptical. But it has been a huge success in large part because dog owners socialize as much with each other as their dogs do. Another example is a nine-hole Frisbee golf course we installed at a local “linear” park. It is amazing how many people use it on a regular basis. We’re trying to build a mountain bike trail that will span the city through various path connections. Our city has nearly 100 miles of multipurpose trails, so there really is no excuse for not getting out, unless one wants to live as a hermit.

All these activities draw different segments of society together, and when you add them all up, it’s what makes a community a home rather than just a place to park the car, close the door, and plug into cyberspace.

So, I guess the bottom line is that I’ll stick my toe into this pool of virtuality (I may have just coined that term!) as long as I can use it to benefit our programs, and create a healthier physical and mental reality. But for now, as I stick my toe in, I’m going to be grasping a thick rope that’s tied to a real tree in the real world, so I can yank myself back in case cyberspace becomes too scary.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail