Sunday, August 23, 2009

Some musings on our digital culture...

Okay remember back to 1996 when e-mail first started to become universal and people were all like: 'E-MAIL -- IT'S INSTANT. No more waiting 3 days for the post office to deliver a letter -- you can have that letter RIGHT NOW!"

Except pretty soon people had so much e-mail that it took them 3 days to respond anyway?

And then came blogs and people were all like: "BLOGS! I can publish anything INSTANTLY to the world wide web!"

Which was true of course, but 70 million blogs later, less than 1% of them are getting any sort of decent traffic and only the top 100 blogs or so are making any money.

And then people drifted over to Facebook with its photos and walls and such. Which is great of course, but now instead of mostly writing to people (e-mail) we're now posting things about ourselves and writing on people's walls for all the world to see -- and that's slightly different. E-mail is like partner dancing and FB feels more like a rave sometimes -- each person doing his/her own thing and sometimes interacting but often just starring at each other it would seem.

But then Facebook wasn't fast enough so people started to gravitate to Twitter as well. And people were all like: 'Twitter, it's INSTANT! I can find out about the news 10 minutes before it hits the papers or blogs!' On Twitter it's possible to follow 500, 1,000 or 10,000 people -- usually people one has never met and does not know personally. But it seems like the real goal is to get people to follow you -- which has this weird, everyone-as-their-own-cult sort of feel to it. Can anyone actually follow 1,000 people on Twitter? Or is it just a courtesy to get people to follow you back? And if a large percentage of followers are just being ignored to pick up a follow-back, what sort of conversation are we actually having?

I guess my question comes down to this:

In this digital age, we have all become publishers, but is anyone listening (or it is all just white noise)?

If you are like me, you start your day like this:
  1. You check e-mail, because a personal e-mail from a friend is still gold.
  2. But if I don't get any good e-mail, and most days I don't, then I go check Facebook and see what friends are saying about themselves.
  3. But after checking FB, I'm still longing for connection so I go to check Twitter to see what famous people and political pundits (strangers) are saying about themselves.
And by the end of the whole process I end up feeling more lost and alone than if I had never turned on my computer, and just called a friend instead.

The democratization of the conversation in the digital age is extremely cool. And at the same time, it's still a tiny handful of influencers (Malcolm Gladwell's "mavens") who are still dominating the conversation. And then there is a lot of noise. Now maybe some folks are figuring out a way to sort through the noise and aggregate it into patterns (I think that's the great challenge of our digital age) but most folks I talk to sound like they just feel overwhelmed by trying to drink water from the fire-hose of digital information we are pounded with each day.

I also feel that something not so great is happening. It feels to me that:
  • Community is being commercialized,
  • We have a digital filter (middle man) between us and other people, and
  • The simulacrum of community is being passed off as actual community and that is impoverishing us and making our lives feel more empty -- in the quest to feel more connected.
In so many ways, e-mail, blogs, Facebook, and twitter, can sometimes feel like selling alcohol to thirsty people. It creates the impression and feel of quenching one's thirst, while actually dehydrating people (which then leads them to consume more alcohol -- a vicious circle.)

So often I feel like we are becoming the NASA SETI program -- beaming messages out into the world hoping that some alien life form will pick them up, but never really knowing if the message is received. But really what we need is actual community -- dancing together, dinner together, community groups and meeting together, bowling together.

[So I guess it wasn't just a question: it was a question and a statement.]

And yet, as soon as I finish this post, I'm gonna cross post it to FB and Twitter because on some level I think that messages are being received. It's just not the same thing as conversation 'though.

I guess we live in prisons of our own making.

Update #1: A Manifesto for Slow Communication. Some great stuff in there.

Update #2: "Facebook Exodus" is the #1 most-forwarded story on the New York Times website today (Sept. 1). Money quote:
“The more dependent we allow ourselves to become to something like Facebook — and Facebook does everything in its power to make you more dependent — the more Facebook can and does abuse us,” Harmsen explained by indignant e-mail. “It is not ‘your’ Facebook profile. It is Facebook’s profile about you.”


Duff said...

Right on the money.

I was just talking to my girlfriend last night and realized out loud, "Hey, this is way better than Twitter!"

Seth Godin is encouraging businesses to form "tribes," i.e. using the tools and strategies of political organizing to create a faux-community around your product (usually with an entrance fee too).

More and more, nobody's listening. The promises of the new frontier of the internet were false.

RFK Action Front said...

Great great comment Duff! Thanks.

Twitter is definitely re-wiring my brain. The first few nights after I joined, I dreamed in 140 characters. Very strange. Yeah I often think, well how would I tweet this -- which really, is f'ed up when you think about it.

The tools are so cool, and yet, at the end of the day, what do we have? People sitting alone in front of pixelated screens often trying to simulate something that is available for free right outside our door.

Buy the sky and sell the sky, buy community and sell community, or just walk away from all that and live.