Being Connected

The other day my brother and I were discussing social networking — Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, E-mails, etc., and he made the observation that, apparently for most people, “It’s important that you’re in touch, not that you have anything important to say.” Or even that you have anything at all to say.

Twitter is, of course, unless I’m already outdated, the latest phenomena, and it’s epidemic. But why? Messages are limited to something like 140 characters, enough to say, “Here I am in suburban metropolis, going to Vortex [or whatever]” or “At San Diego ComicCon, and Neil Gaiman’s here…” Why should anyone really care? And yet, they obviously do.

College campuses are filled with students, and more and more, they don’t talk to each other face to face. The moment a class lets out, most of them are on their cellphones — those that weren’t already texting under their desks in class — connecting to someone, and oblivious to anyone around them, so much so that students have been known to walk in front of oncoming cars… and not just occasionally, either. It’s not even remarkable when a high school girl receives something like 20 twitters/text messages in less than a half hour… or that none of them convey any information to speak of.

So… why are so many people working so frantically to “stay in touch,” especially given that it’s not that cheap? Since human beings come from simian stock, is this fad a form of “verbal grooming?” Or is it an attempt by the communicators to reassure themselves that they really do mean something to someone in a universe that we as humans have been forced to realize is so vast as to reduce even our entire solar system to comparative nothingness? Or perhaps an effort to fill some sort of emptiness with the sound of a familiar voice… or at least the letters texted by a friend?

It’s clear that I’m incredibly dated and old-fashioned, at least in the social communications sense, but I’d rather hear those words and voices in person. It’s not that I don’t have a cellphone, because I do. I just never carry it except when I travel. When I do travel, I use it to obtain information, such as directions to the bookstore I’m going to visit. Although I do know how to use a GPS and could certainly use an IPhone or a Blackberry, I’ve no interest in putting my entire life on one of them, not after watching what happens to people when they lose them or break them… or even when they don’t, because they’re always checking them, as if their communications device happens to be more important than the people around them. Just what does that tell you about how they feel about you?

I even forgot the cellphone when I went to WorldCon in Montreal, and it wasn’t even close to a disaster. Getting information from a live person suits me fine, but, with the increasing depersonalization of communications involving commerce, with the endless message menus, I wonder just how much longer that will be possible.

And yes, when I travel, I do call my wife to touch base — generally every night, not every five minutes. But that may be because we’re more connected in the ways that count.

4 thoughts on “Being Connected”

  1. Skip says:

    I don't use twitter myself, but I've seen it enough to understand it. It's not, as you might think, primarily status updates. Instead twitter's used for, essentially, a giant low-bandwidth chat room. It's essentially like the guild chat from when I'm online playing World of Warcraft, but taken out of the game and extended to a larger audience.

  2. mcjoe says:

    Sorry, but this is a bit of an over-generalization. While it is probably true that some (most?) people's twitter streams consist of nothing but vacuous "I'm brushing my teeth" tweets, this is not always the case. It is possible to follow some very interesting people that you are unlikely to meet in everyday life and learn something from them.

    In my feed, many of the tweets I receive consist of very short summaries, followed by links to more meaty information. From such tweets, I have learned more about my craft (software development), politics and economics (many different viewpoints, most unavailable from traditional media, some whacky, but many thought provoking), and even read some great literature.

    To this latter point, the drabblecast sponsors a 100 character twitfic story contest. It is hard to fit an entire story into 100 characters and I am amazed at how ingenious some writers are in the form. It does not always work, but does often enough that I find it worth my time to follow the stream.

    My main criticism of your point is that because some have chosen to misuse the medium, you appear to argue that there can be no valid use for the same. I use Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook and LinkedIn to augment my communication with the world, not replace it.

    For more on this, I refer you to Neal Ford's articles on this, Twitter Matters: Keeping Up With Weak Social Links. Neal does an amazing job of arguing the value proposition of social networks and Twitter in particular.

    Twitter can be a great communication tool, just don't use it for letting folks know what stage of hygenic maintenance you are currently practicing! 😉

  3. Iron Sparrow says:

    I supplement real life interaction with twitter. I follow friends I see in real life. We each follow different personalities out in cyberspace and enjoy passing on interesting information and amusing chitchat.

    I also get world news without having to subscribe to an RSS feed or going to a cable news website. For instance, I learned from twitter today that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

    On the other hand, I'm not tethered to a smartphone (my cell phone usage seems to mirror your own), so maybe the people you're dealing with really are out of control. When I'm with someone in real life, electronic stimuli tend to take a back seat for me.

  4. A. Shelton says:

    I'll go one better, I don't have a cellphone at all, and when I did, I used it mostly for calling various friends to tell them I was at the transit station they told me to be at so that they could pick me up.


    Otherwise, I just kept phone numbers in it, and I got myself an address book and wrote those numbers there when I had to cancel my cellphone service. Now, I take a dollar in quarters with me, and call my friends from the payphones on the transit stations (about the only places you can find them in my area).

    I have a twitter account, but don't update it frequently, and when I do, I generally type in something silly like, "checking out twitter" on it.

    I do facebook, but that's for more long-distance, and I don't really communicate on it, except with my sister, in Georogia, who doesn't do phone calls very often.

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