Saturday, October 17, 2009

Anti-social networking

There's something disturbing about the way online tools enable a passivity in social interaction. Mass emails, blog posts, Facebook statuses, Twitter tweets, etc. are all ways to announce things to people as a group, without taking the extra initiative and personal touch of communicating with the individual. It's sort of like the passive bribe often depicted on screen. "I'm just going to leave this money here, and if it's not here when I come back...."

Everything is either a broadcast or a reply. People seem a lot less willing to initiate direct, person-to-person communication, and we're losing something because of it. It's perfectly understandable why it happens. It's a lot less effort to send out a lowest-common-denominator message. There's no risk of being ignored or rejected when you're announcing something to the world at large.

It takes out some of the risk, but also some of the sincerity. And it puts the onus on other people to respond, which may be safer, but also reduces your chance of meaningful communication. I guess a lot of people prefer to increase their chance of failure if it means they can blame others rather than themselves. That also encourages them to participate in the same fashion, because your reply does not itself demand a reply, so when there is none, you aren't wounded. Furthermore, since someone else has chosen the topic and established the thread, it's a lot less effort for you to chime in. Of course, it's a lot tougher to have a meaningful, thoughtful communication that way, but it's certainly easier and leaves you less vulnerable.

I also sense an element of narcissism in some cases. The broadcast is inevitably about the one thing that is common to the group: you. Whether it's something about you, in your life, or of interest to you, it all comes back to being about you. Nobody sincerely asks about a friend's well-being this way, after all. And then it validates your ego when the other people take the initiative to reply to you, even if a reply doesn't demonstrate the the same interest. Passively soliciting replies it enables you to continue to see yourself as the star of your own show.

Of course, the world doesn't work like that, and it impoverishes your interactions with other people. Other people will sense that you don't think them worth the effort of a direct, personal message, and all the indirect, impersonal messages in the world won't fix that. Indeed, they'll actually make it worse, because they'll create a stark contrast between what is and what should be.

The upshot is that you should only broadcast things when they make sense to broadcast, and don't let these broadcasts take away from individual emails. If it's a message that's trivial or entirely about you, then it makes sense to put it in a broadcast tweet or something similar. After all, half the reason those tools exist is to tell people about yourself.

Send things to group lists when it's an interest group, rather than just an assortment of people that you know. If there's something that would be of interest to multiple people you know who don't know or care about each other, then send a separate message to each one. If that's too much effort, then maybe it's not as valuable a message (to them or to you) as you assumed. It takes very little thought or effort to add someone to a CC list, and everybody knows it. If you add me to your 43-strong recipient list for your "Happy Diwali" list, can you really truly say that it's important to you that I have a happy Diwali?

Broadcast messages have their uses, but they should be kept to those uses. Make sure you take the time to communicate personally and directly on an individual level. That's how you show you care. And if you don't care, it'll be obvious. In fact, it already is.



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