Life offline, and why I do it

Greetings, and a happy new year. I am back after a prolonged absence from blogging, tweeting, status updating and online socializing. I took what was almost a month away from social media, and spent my time instead reading, taking notes, and catching up with friends in person.

I like to do this every year, and recommend it to those of you who use social media on a daily basis. Just being away from the scene is revealing. Not using social media is even more interesting. And reclaiming the long stretches of uninterrupted time with which you can read and really, properly focus and think — is in fact rewarding.

I often say that we learn what our social tools do by turning them off. For it’s when they’re off that we realize what we are missing. And by realizing what we miss, we’re made aware of how they have become second nature to us.

Well I have long had a difficult relationship with twitter. I prefer, if I’m to write, room for at least a couple parenthetical remarks, a couple disclaimers, perhaps a self-referential pun or poke, and a clear reference. Can’t do those in twitter, and so I find it a difficult medium. Just doesn’t suit either my writing style nor my conversation style.

The twitter break was great, insofar as I realized how much of my head goes to maintaining the realtime stream. Even those cycles, which run in the background, are a draw on the energy I normally need to focus and develop new thoughts and ideas. Twitter is a particular draw on me because as a conversation tool its “threads” are ongoing and incomplete. As it turns out, my own proclivity for interactions, and my personal style of conversation, are ill-served by the imperfect continuity of discontinuous attention, and stuttering conversation, and the ambiguous incompletion of much talk started and passed around twitter.

That said, it hurt not to be on twitter. I missed out on a lot of contact and communication, from the lively and regular local social media scene to direct and private conversations. You can be offline for a long time before the phone starts ringing!

It’s good to be back. My absence was self-imposed, and had become somewhat uncomfortable. Not being online had forced me out into cafes, long walks, time spent in the company of people but not necessarily in the company of friends. I learned that too much social media is connecting but in a reified and isolating manner. What we do with our faces, voices, our eyes and ears, in person, really and truly is different. I’m stating the obvious when I say that social media are no substitute for the real thing.

I’ll be less interested in social media qua social media this year than in the past couple years. I’ve reached my own personal fascination with mediation and how it works. And I have learned that much of what interested me in the past was my own desire to make the technology more interesting to talk and think about. I will be more engaged this year with what can be done through and with social media.

We face real problems — problems that will be solved only by means of massively coordinated action, distributed information sharing, ongoing communication built on trust, on cooperation, on respect and on some degree of mutually reciprocated understanding. We won’t get there without use of the internet — the diversity and complexity of problems and of the response needed to address and solve those problems require use of information sharing technologies.

I believe social media can be useful in local social efforts and action, in distributed learning, sharing, and resource coordination, and in global collective action. If some of this involves the status update and the tweet, then that is interesting. And compelling.

The distinction between mass and social media has now blurred significantly. Each now borrows and re-appropriates forms from the other; each now copies and reinterprets modes of production from the other. I’ve said often that in the communication age, our talk is itself a commodity, and our social media, a means of production. A vast, rich, interconnected and active system of images, messages, news, and information now exists within which individuals can become brands, celebrities, experts, and so on. I sincerely hope that a lot of this effort is ultimately translated into offline behavior change and forward-looking wisdom.

The distorting effects of social media are high, the arbitrariness of connection and the ambiguity of intent are high. The dependability and commitment of participation and engagement are low, and transient conversations and interactions frequently leave little behind. We have yet to prove that social media are capable of creating real value beyond impressions, real knowledge beyond information, real relationships beyond the interaction, real communication beyond talk. Those outcomes and byproducts of these social media means of production would presumably be measured in the real world. It is important that we not mistake our symptoms for our outcomes.

I really enjoyed taking a month away from active blogging, tweeting, and facebooking (I kept up with google readering). I am sure many of you took breaks to spend time with family and friends over the holidays. This year should be a good one. If not better economically than 09, it should be a year in which to get more real about social media. Less personal branding, less ego, fame, and celebrity. More social media in the workplace, the organization, and learning environment. Less social media for itself and more social media for something else.

We are at that place in the medium’s “evolutionary” timeline that begs for better and harder thinking. Less selling, pitching, evangelizing, and more problem solving. It’s less sexy now. It’s more common and ordinary. As we all know, however, with social technologies it’s the social that makes them interesting. This becomes even more the case the less interesting the tech is as tech and for tech’s sake.

I’ll be paying attention to this. And we will be talking about this over on sxdsalon.org, the group I set up with Adina Levin and others end of last year to talk social interaction design. I intend to continue to articulate the ways in which social practices develop and grow around use of social media tools — practices best understood with use of insights from sociology, anthropology, psychology, media theory, and linguistics. But with help of the group’s members we will also push forward design, research, and implementation ideas. It should be a good year for social interaction design.

This was not meant to be more than a brief note. I hope I didn’t lose you — with this or with my absence. May it be a good, productive, and rewarding year.

Cheers,
Adrian Chan

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