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Angst floods social networks

December 15, 2010

No sooner does Time magazine place its fabled curse on the head of the Star Child than the fanboys begin to sidle toward the exits. "I've started to take one step back from the digital world," tweets Nick Bilton, the New York Times' chief tech blogger and resident future-dweller. He cops to the fact that "over the last few months, my wife and I have started to make a conscious effort to limit the use of our mobile phones during dinner or while spending time with family." Bilton is not alone in giving in to the denetworking urge. Wired columnist Clive Thompson confesses that he has begun "to completely ignore his e-mail 'from Friday night to Monday morning,' so he doesn’t accidentally get involved in work and pulled away from his family." Gizmodo reporter Joe Johnson has also begun pocketing his gizmo, at least when dining out with his girlfriend: "The two allocate a few moments to check-in on Foursquare or snap a quick picture, but then put their phones away." Johnson's boss, Brian Lam, muses that "an obsession with technology can 'dilute the quality time we should spend with the people closest to us.'” Former Digg CEO Jay Adelson worries about "the increasingly damaging and fatiguing Twitter lifestyle." All this neoluddite handwringing comes amid word, from TechCrunch, that Twitter's US growth seems to be flatlining, with nary an uptick since the summer. Bilton senses a meme emerging. He wonders: "Is society as a whole retreating a bit from using technology in our personal relationships?"


Among those old enough to remember before 1990 and the circumspection to step back and think, a return to meat world makes good sense, even if only limited to certain intervals. Others refuse to watch TV or attend to news (propaganda) for similar reasons, though those choices are usually global rather than for specified times or activities. Among those too young or naive to know better, there is nowhere and nothing to retreat to. Thus, it's probably too early yet to identify a trend. Of course, a complete loss of electricity would change all that.

Posted by: Brutus.wordpress.com [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2010 05:32 PM

Yes, that's something important to consider - all the folks "retreating" may be technology journalists, but they've known a world without screen-mediated socializing. If this is indeed a trend, we should expect to see it amongst a younger generation, i.e., those who've not known social life without Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Anecdotally, I have seen a general retreat amongst teenagers, but it's hard to say if that's true across the board.

Posted by: Anxiaostudio [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2010 10:14 PM

Astonishing how life became (should not, but...) dependant on electricity and internet. Sometimes if you go to bed without checking AGAIN your emails, twitter or any other "net-network" you feel blamed. Funny world this one became. Sometimes I miss the "analog-hardware-driven" world. Good ol´times.
Congratz for your blog and 3 books. I´m just waiting for the portuguese version for 'The Shallows' to come in Brazil.
Best regards. :) .

Posted by: Andre Varga [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 15, 2010 10:16 PM

Maybe some are backing away, but the real test will be whether they slow down enough to think a bit.

When I started in the marketing biz, I sometimes mailed copy to clients. Today I can send it around the world in a half-second, but I don't think any faster than I did then.

Does anyone else?

Are they backing away to preserve some quiet, or re-start their brains?

Posted by: Tom Chandler [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 16, 2010 12:14 AM

Well, remember the rule of thumb: When a trend hits the cover of a mass media magazine, that means it's over.

Please note "society as a whole" != "pundits" (much less the techie pundits). That remark's a pretty good example of the trope "If my social group is doing it, EVERYONE must be doing it".

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 16, 2010 11:27 AM

This comic (http://abstrusegoose.com/328) pretty much nails it for the hyperconnected: unlink, delete, and decommission and one's entire identity evaporates.

Posted by: Brutus.wordpress.com [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 17, 2010 01:29 PM

The real reason is that it's the stupid puritan hope in ultra utilitarianism which is starting to dye, together with the energy shortages looming

Posted by: an691 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 20, 2010 06:19 PM

I'm surprised more people didn't see information overload and information anxiety as obvious outcomes from mankind's sudden exposure to such powerful communication technologies and interactive systems. It’s all pretty new when we consider just how quickly the world of communications has changed in the past 10 years or, what it was like several decades ago. How many readers remember the ubiquitous ‘Pager’ and how cool and revolutionary we all thought it was? As a child, my father didn't have a telephone or television set until he was well into his 20’s! His grandfather never even knew of their existence. Consider the reaction people must have had when experiencing these fantastical new objects – the ‘speaking boxes’! And yet today, practically everyone claims to be an expert! Yet how is this possible? How can everyone in the world suddenly have an opinion on such a complex and rapidly evolving system? How can people everywhere claim to understand what’s really going on, when for most, it’s just a game - a new kind of toy - and they’re condensing their understanding of these ultra-sophisticated technologies into a very short time-span while at the same time believing that by interacting with it, they somehow ‘get what it is’! Personally, I don’t think many people really understand it at all. In fact, many just take it for granted. Somehow it’s become a matter of “I am what I use” (think Mac owners). The device I hold or the medium I operate makes me equal to its capabilities (as described in the manual). In some respects, what we are really witnessing is some kind of modern day ‘Tower of Babel’ – an explosion of many billions of tongues all trying to speak and be heard at the same time. Is it any wonder people are tuning out and turning off? In respect of this mass exodus from the raging babble, here’s a little prediction (and I’ve made many which have been accurate): in the not too distant future, one of the most popular videos on Youtube TV will be a continuous 24hr video recording of the Amazon rainforest (without accompanying and often annoying music).

Posted by: thinkfeeldo [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 4, 2011 04:33 AM

I think Brutus has it right - we've already seen this up and down trend, moving in the direction of faster/more convenient communication, all our lives.

I worked at a startup some years ago where we had clear guidelines on which medium to use relative to the communications urgency of expected response - lowest was email that could be expected to be read 3 times/day, next was IM, next was phone, and finally, walk down the hall and interrupt.

Would be nice if we could all adopt similar guidelines appropriate to our lives. It does take some thought - but I think it happens over time as described in Nick's original post.

So young people I work with (college students - I now teach) Tweet almost never, email very little if at all, Facebook more, phone a lot, and text message a lot more. They are forced to accept some old media (e.g. email) when they move into the work world- but FB, texting and other channels serve a valid purpose in their lives, and will continue to do so as they change that "adult" world to their own tastes, as they should.

My experience is that successful people have always integrated these various old and new things quite well, and the forces that acted on them to do so haven't changed so much at all.

Posted by: Joe Elwell [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 4, 2011 10:07 AM

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