Too Connected – Utopias and Dystopias of Communication
Some people feel that the ability to connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime is one of the utopias the Internet brings. For any question you have, the answer is a keystroke away. Google leads you to the site or person who can help. Country walls are irrelevant in the reach of information. You can connect with people in Malaysia, Australia, or Zimbabwe as if they lived next door. With this connectedness, all the silos and walled gardens tend to crumble as people, once strangers, connect and communicate with each other in milliseconds.
Last week while walking past Temple Square my friend John, a product manager where I work, painted a very different picture of connectedness. John asked me about Twitter, and as I was explaining it, Twitter seemed liked just another of the dozens of social media site out there.
"People always talk about how great it is," John said, "that new media allows you to communicate and connect with each other, but that's exactly what I don't want. I don't want all these people I don't know emailing me and pinging me through Twitter, and Plurk and Linkedin and so on. I don't see why anyone would want that."
As we walked, I started to wonder why I myself would want it. Each day I'm bombarded with enough information to bury me. Email, tweets, instant messages, phone calls, SMS, blog comments, trackbacks, pingbacks, spam, newsletters, invitations to LinkedIn, Pulse, Plaxo, RSS feeds -- it all gets to be like noise. Communication noise.
In my inbox now, I have 784+ unread messages. Most I've never opened because they aren't … anything. In my RSS feeds, Google Reader constantly tells me I have 1,000+ unread posts. The comments on my blog pour day after day, whether I write new posts or not.
Sometimes the communication noise is even louder. Last week an anonymous lady called me at dinnertime to ask how to convert her WordPress.com site into a shopping cart to sell her art. Then "Sam" from New York (no idea who he is) called to say he'd followed my instructions on adding WordPress photo galleries with lightboxes but could not get it to work. He went on and on as if we were old friends.
(By the way, I now no longer answering my phone to see who it is.)
The more you blog, the more people you attract through Google. The more search-engine-optimized your posts are, the more people find you. The more tweets you send, the more people follow you. The more social networks you join, the more people add themselves to your page. The better posts you write, the more people subscribe to your RSS feed. The more content you generate – in whatever form and media – the more trackbacks and links people generate about you. The more you produce, the more emails and questions you get. You become like a content cloud – attracting Google searches.
Last week my kids pulled out an old home movie taken about 5 years ago -- before we were all sucked into the Internet and Web 2.0. We seemed to have all the time in the world: sitting on a couch, or on a picnic table outside. (Yes, outside! in the sun, surrounded by …. nature, and grass! Haven't seen that in a while.) On the video we smiled and laughed. Time moved much more slowly. No one was checking his BlackBerry, or posting to Twitter, or staying up late to blog. No feelings of concern about email. This was before the Web 2.0 deluge, before we received 100+ emails/comments/feeds/tweets a day. It seemed back then life was so different -- before connectedness enveloped me like a fish net.
If connectedness is such a dystopia, why not just cut the wire, or unplug the cable? No one forces me to stay online. If the game is getting boring, no one's preventing me from going home before the final buzzer.
Truthfully, I am somewhat addicted to connecteness. While 75% of it all is meaningless noise, there are some contexts that become extremely meaningful. Having a public space to write and publish my thoughts -- where people actually read what I write and respond with comments or email or trackbacks -- it's motivating. My words no longer live solely in Word documents on an old hard drive, intended to be published in an obscure literary journal after months of slush pile dormancy. My writing freely propagates around the Internet. It freely connects with others. (No doubt for some, I am communication noise.)
Overall, to have a space to write and publish, to wake up the next morning and see half a dozen new comments on a post, to throw out a Tweet in a moment of total consternation at the grocery store, to read meaningful insights from others about topics I'm interested in -- whether from social networks, RSS feeds, blogs, comments, listservs, or Twitter – it gets my mental wheels turning. The network cables are already too deep and intertwined to unplug them from my nervous system.
Nonetheless, I admit that I am conflicted. My oldest daughter is seven. She has her own blog. Should I encourage her to post more, and respond to comments from Heather, her little seven-year old friend (who also has a blog, and whom she has met once in Arizona)? Or should I encourage her to play outside, enjoying her offline childhood?
It's not entirely an either/or scenario, but I'll let her define her own paths in or around Web 2.0.
photo from Flickr
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.