01 March 2011

Too Much Information?

Written by Published in Technology
Too Much Information? ©Niklas Wikström

What are the dos and don'ts of self-expression and confrontation on the social platforms?

Imagine, by some future quirk of human evolution, that telepathy is a reality. But there is a twist. Rather than hearing others’ thoughts in proximity as if they were auditory, and hence limited by the same physics, we could filter out large parts of what everyone else was thinking and only hear those thoughts – from anywhere in the world – which were about us.

You’d think it would be the death of indiscretion. But it’s quite the opposite. Because of course, if you think about it, I have just described one of the many stubbornly strange features of the social media. Let me elaborate.

For example, yesterday I sent a Tweet, asking if anyone else had had the experience of making an important business pitch from a train toilet, that being the only place where you can both be discreet and hear the call. At the time, it struck me as simply an amusing new variant on the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’. But then today my business partner asked me about it, because my Tweet was in the name of my start-up and we get sent Google Alerts. Lucky, I suppose, at least that I didn’t name the client!

Then a few weeks ago, I read a Tweet by a respected author asking if anyone else thought that the central idea of a well-known, current and successful book by another respected author was insubstantial and transient. Yes, it’s standard bitching. He probably didn’t even mean it as personally as it sounded. But my very first thought was, Oh my God, thanks to Alerts/Tweetdeck/PR monitoring, the author in question would undoubtedly have read his comment too.

Some years ago, when blogging was at a similar stage to where  Tweeting currently is, I wrote a light-hearted post complaining about the demise of the seriously mad 1970s self-help scene – Est, rebirthing and similar – dwindling, in my view, as it had to the half-hearted, lifestyle pap that is Psychologies magazine. And of course the very first comment was from the editor of Psychologies herself, wondering if I had read the magazine, or was even qualified to cast such aspersions. Fair point.

It’s all a bit like the scene from the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall, where Marshall McLuhan – playing himself – is brought into an argument between Allen and someone who has been pontificating loudly about McLuhan’s work in the queue outside a cinema. ‘If only life were like this,’ comments Allen as McLuhan wins the argument for him. Although the line from this scene that sticks with you more is probably, ‘Oh, for a sock full of horse manure.’

Being confronted by those from whom you detract is some kind of defining dilemma of the social media. ‘On the internet, no one knows you are a dog,’ they used to say. Whereas now, in Web 2.0, it’s more like: ‘Anyone instantly knows if you call them a dog.’

I suppose it’s a matter of habits catching up with a new quirk of social communication. Eventually we will either be more honest, or more guarded – who knows?

But what about the generalised effects of sharing private thoughts so publicly? Is it changing the nature of our discourse, our culture, making us more emotionally explicit? There are theories that Facebook is making the English less reserved, and men less prone to hiding their feelings. Research into platforms such as Facebook shows that being single will incline people to reveal significantly greater quantities of personal information. Other research into couples who met online shows that it is a medium almost perfectly adapted to the process of falling in love, because it accentuates positive projections – ‘we are so alike’ – while providing fewer of the bubble-bursting cues and clues we get on meeting in reality. 

About this, writer and journalist Russell Davies complained to me once that his global team meetings on the then new Second Life platform were always haunted by the suspicion of flirting. Is that it? Are we inadvertently using ‘love letters’ as a medium for other purposes? Russell will no doubt pop up to comment on that one!

It may just be me. But when I sat down to write an article some years ago, I’d never have dreamed of using the word ‘I’, let alone reveal personal details. Now I write as I blog, as a form of thinking aloud. I assume you, the reader, are used to being addressed in this way, so that our communications are more personal, one-to-one. Am I right? Is our discourse becoming more intimate? Perhaps you too can comment and let me know.

Back to Marshall McLuhan: I rather doubt that the medium is the message. I tend to think that the social media are only partly instrumental, expressing, rather than ever entirely causing, some broader trend, pattern or reconfiguration. That the Romans made the roads more than the roads made the Romans. (The proposition that sticks in my mind from McLuhan’s famous book being that ‘the radio made Hitler’ – as if economic depression, radical right politics, scapegoating mechanisms writ large and other factors played no role.) 

I would hazard a guess that we have been drawn to the precise modern forms of social media – including this ‘directed telepathy’ and their general broadcasting of our inmost thoughts – by some cultural tide. It might be the radical loneliness of competitive individualism wherein everyone is a pseudo-pop star, and hence no one feels that they have any real friends. It might be that we are evolving into Rifkin’s ‘Empathic Civilisation’ (which I discussed in a previous column). It might be something more enigmatic: a re-emerging small-world consciousness that’s reviving something like a palpable sense of ‘Fate’.

I suspect that personally, cultural trends aside, it’s also simply good to blurt every now and then. Even if it’s occasionally embarrassing or humiliating, for ourselves or for others. There’s something healthy and wholesome and right about speaking the truth. Not the factual truth, nor the kind of truth that is deployed in ‘feedback’ to curb or manipulate another. But the sort of objective, emotional truth – often, a shock of self-recognition – that you find occasionally in movies and poetry and glances in the mirror.

I have no idea why I would tell you all this. As I said, I’m just thinking aloud. But then again, isn’t that my point?

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