Leah Jones is always plugged in to Jewish life in Chicago
As I write this, Leah Jones is in San Francisco—and pictures from the trip are available now on her Flickr page. She’s enjoying herself, but she’s feeling out of sorts because, though she shared a three bedroom in the city’s Mission neighborhood during the summer of 1996, nothing looks familiar. She hasn’t told me any of this personally. In fact the last time (and first time) we talked was the Friday before her trip to California. The truth is, I don’t know Leah.
Leah Jones is a professional social networker. In her role as a Digital Culture Evangelist at Edelman Public Relations she aspires to boost the digital savvy of every PR professional. She places people on a 1-10 scale—with a 1 being someone whose digital smarts end with Outlook and a 10 being an all out digital geek—and aims to help make each and every one a better digital communicator.
“We want everyone to understand how to make technology work for clients,” she says. In addition to serving as the “sort of wrangler” for EdelmanDigital.com and writing the Friday 5—a weekly email newsletter to the staff with five tips on getting the most from one kind of media such as Facebook, Flickr or Twitter—she travels to other Edelman offices to lead digital bootcamps.
As someone who believes in the power of social networking, but refused to join Facebook until this year (and yes, I heart Facebook. I was wrong) and recently participated in The Modern Letter Project, I was interested in chatting with Leah about how she got into social networking, whether its good for the Jews and where she thinks it’s headed.
When I was a kid, my friend Christina’s family not only had a computer—they had this wacky thing called Prodigy that, as I understood, allowed their computer to talk to other computers. I had a Speak and Spell. Christina was a 10; I was a 1. I wondered where Leah fell on the early technology scale.
“I wasn’t into Prodigy or computers as a kid but my brother was. He is six years older than I am and has been on the web forever. His experience made me comfortable with it,” she says. But she was still an early adopter. Leah’s online life can be traced back to high school. “In 1992-93, there was an Indiana bulletin board on telnet that I would dial into and write bad poetry,” she says.
Like many of us who went to college in the early-mid 1990s, access was an issue. “In college, during my freshman year, we only had one computer lab with internet access and it was only for business students,” Leah says. She graduated from teen angst poetry and then from college, going on to Friendster and ultimately blogging.
She had recently moved to London for a five-month job and was looking for a way to keep up with friends, family and co-workers when she started Leah in Chicago. It was during that stretch that she realized the reach of blogging. “It was the first time I answered an article request that I found on Craig’s List, and Craig—Craig Newmark [the founder of Craig’s List]—left a comment on my blog. That was the first time I was like whoa; anyone can get to this,” she says.
Armed with the knowledge that any old stranger—or worse, boss or parent—can read the personal details of your life, many bloggers struggle with what to share and what to keep to themselves. “I started out very careful because I was working in education; I would say after a year or two I loosened up.”
And when she did, traffic spiked. “The biggest growth in traffic was when I started converting and blogging that experience in December 2004. That’s when I really started reading and commenting on other blogs and building a community,” Leah says.
Today, she’s one of the leaders of the Jewish online community. She has 600 Facebook friends and is a member of 27 groups—many of them are Jewish or Israel related. On Twitter, (the micro-blogging site that allows you to send updates—or tweets—in the form of short, text-based posts) Leah follows 309 people and has 1,383 people following her. On Flickr, she has 153 friends. “I love Flickr and del.icio.us as ways to get to know people. The links people share and the images they choose to share say a lot about them,” she says.
When she went to Israel last June, Twitter saved her ass. “I was going to a Twitter meet-up and when I got there my host wasn’t there. I sent a Twitter message saying: “ ‘I’m in Tel Aviv without a backup plan’ and someone picked me up.” Pretty cool.
At home, social networking keeps her connected to the Jewish community. “Young Jews in Chicago are doing things. On Facebook, I am a member of every major Chicago Jewish group and I get invited to events all of the time,” Leah says. And it’s not just her. “Last night I was on the bus and these women were talking about Kfar and Facebook. It’s a great way to find out if there’s an event going on, but I want to see groups get out of Facebook a little because it doesn’t give you Google power,” she says.
“Google is important because for many people, the online experience starts with a Google or Yahoo search. If your group is buried deep in the results (beyond the second or third page) and it is only on Facebook, people will have a much harder time finding you,” says Leah.
Looking ahead, she believes mobility will be increasingly important. “The next big thing might not be Twitter but what Twitter allows you to do—send group texts to get information and find out where people are.” And maybe that’s the appeal--getting to actually see your friends in the flesh. “Or, maybe the next big thing will be more traditional—like Shabbat dinner; getting offline and actually meeting people,” she says. And if you read her blog, you know that’s something Leah herself has been committed to doing this summer.
So, does Leah Jones ever unplug? “I would like to unplug more than I do,” she says. “For the first time ever, I kept Shabbat when I was in Israel this summer. I had everything off and I was like, ‘Oh, this is what my life used to be like.’ I don’t do it very often, but I have been cutting down—though you can’t tell by the amount of activity I have online.”
Check out some of Leah’s online activity here: