Monday, September 28, 2009

The problem with...

I got to overhear a harangue against Facebook recently which so nicely fit into the pattern that I think is, in a larger context, behind this quote:
"Societies can behave the same way, when there is a sudden and dramatic increase in the flow of energy through the society -- automobiles in place of horses and buggies, massive waves of immigration, new trading relationships with new flows of products, surges of new information with the introduction of technologies like television or the Internet. First, long-stable patterns break down. Then new ones emerge at a higher degree of complexity. Societies are vulnerable to misinterpreting the first stage as a descent into chaos and then overreacting with the imposition of a rigid, stagnating order." -- Al Gore, at MIT Commencement Address, June 7, 1996
In this case, people tend to imagine that something like Facebook is a fundamentally new thing and treat it as such. All the mistakes flow from that. It is new in some ways, but at its core, it's not that new.

That leads some people who are embracing it to set aside common sense they have always taken for granted: for instance, they might reveal more about themselves in Facebook than they would ever do by other modes of communication, because even though Facebook is essentially "a way to communicate with people", people get hung up on the novelty of it and fail to apply the rules they already know for ways to communicate with people.

And the mirror image of that is the people who aren't embracing it who level criticisms about why people are using it to communicate with people instead of older, "better" methods. This was played out in a particularly ironic way in the conversation I overheard. The other person objected that Facebook is a bad substitute for reaching out to touch people directly, like she was doing. But what she was doing was talking to someone on a cell phone over a Bluetooth connection in a car. How long ago was it that telephones, or cell phones, or Bluetooth, were all poor substitutes for the modes of human communication that came before them, to the same sorts of people? Once the telephone became transparent, it became literally just another way to reach out to someone; sure, there are conversations that shouldn't be done on the phone, but no one thinks calling your mother isn't really having human communication anymore. But every new method of communication is so busy being "new" for a while that it hasn't yet been accepted for what it ultimately is, a method of communication.

Once people stop treating something like Facebook as a fundamentally different thing, they will find that it is 90% a familiar thing they know, a way to communicate with people, and only then can they find the other 10% that is genuinely new. It's funny that people miss the real paradigm shifts because they're so busy mistaking the whole bloody thing for a paradigm shift!

I'm only using Facebook as an example here. The same thing could have been said for mail, telegraphs, telephones, answering machines, fax machines, email, texting, webcams, and any other new form of communication, and will no doubt be said for all the future changes in how we communicate, too. In fact, similar things can be said for almost any big change in how people interact with one another.

1 comment:

Tyler said...

In the end, most social networking tools and other forms of communication boil down to leaving a lengthy series of notes with varying levels of interactivity.