Monday, November 16, 2009

Massaging the Medium

Have you ever noticed how people tend to make decisions about the attention they'll give to messages based on the mode of communication—rather than on the relative urgency or importance of the message? I have, and I'm not so sure it's a good thing.

In 1964 Canadian educator Marshall McLuhan published
Understanding Media, this was followed three years later by The Medium is the Massage. Taken together, these two titles comprised his seminal observations about the Information Age. The title of the latter book was a pun on his most famous tag line, "The medium is the message," by which he meant that changes in technology can have profound effects on how we communicate. (He did not mean that content is irrelevant; only that technological skews what gets communicated.)

At the recent Fellowship for Intentional Community
organizational meetings (held Oct 30-Nov 1 in Berea KY), we focused one session on the outreach opportunities presented by web-based social networking tools—Facebook in particular. It was a fascinating conversation. About half the people in the room were Facebook users. Some do it once a fortnight; some are in there four times a night. Some relish the breezy updates and easy camaraderie; others are turned off by postings that are mainly about what others are doing on Facebook (kind of like the media's rising tendency to report on what others are reporting—where's the meat?).

So far, I'm a Facebook virgin (where would I get the time?). My basic analysis is that social networking tools tend to be very broad and very shallow. While I like broad, I'm not particularly drawn to shallow. That said, my position is not immutable and I'm trying to sort out what it means to use the technology intelligently. Which is where McLuhan comes in. I'm wondering how much people are slanting their communication toward Facebook because its sexy and there are cool pictures—rather than because the people they want (or need) to connect with can be found there.

[As an aside, last month I received an invitation from a former client to become her Facebook friend. I hadn't heard from her in 18 months and was pleased to have the contact. I wrote her a personal email declining the link (after all, I don't do Facebook), yet affirming my interest in personal correspondence. Imagine my surprise when she responded by saying she was surprised to hear from me, and that she hadn't sent me an invitation. Apparently the Facebook program had rooted around in her email Address Book and blithely invited everyone there to become her friend. Perhaps she'd inadvertently given her permission for that (at least I hope so), but it's all a bit too 1984 for me, and doesn't incline me toward jumping into the Facebook conga line. In fact, that experience had me wondering if there was a self-help option
to join Aboutfacebook, for those who found themselves in too deep.]

My partner, Ma'ikwe, loves Facebook. I believes she now has in excess of 500 "friends," meaning people who have accepted an invitation to link their Facebook page to hers. Like a lot of folks, she's reported that she's established contact with long lost school chums and she appreciates how many people she can offer a first-level update on her life in one pass. I think that has merit and I can respect the value she places on re-invigorated connections. I also notice however, that concomitant with her upsurge in Facebook traffic there's been a diminution of her appearance on list serves we're both on. (The clock only has so many minutes in it each day, and that face time on Facebook has to come from somewhere.)

Because she lives three miles away and I don't see her daily, I have come to rely substantially on email traffic to stay current. While she subscribes to my blog; I don't see her Facebook entries. I now know a bit less about what's going on for her day to day because the email has been tapering, and I don't see the Facebook postings where she's keeping everyone else apprised of her goings on. This is not the result of a decision on Ma'ikwe's part to cut me off; it's a consequence of her communication choices.

In short, Facebook has drawn her attention away from regular email and I believe its having an impact on which relationships are getting juice—irrespective of which relationships are valuable or more interesting. While I'm not worried about Ma'ikwe's and my ability to figure out what communication we need to maintain a healthy vibrant partnership, I nonetheless find this impact noteworthy and somewhat disturbing in its unmindfulness.

Going the other way, I have a dear friend, Caroline Estes, who is an FIC Board member and someone I've known for 22 years. She was one of the early people helping to shape the Fellowship, and has been an important influence on how I learned consensus and facilitation. Caroline lives at Alpha Farm in Deadwood, OR, 2000 miles away from Sandhill. For the first 10 years of FIC, we talked regularly by phone and that sustained the relationship between meetings. Gradually though, email became the increasingly dominant mode of organizational communication and Caroline never embraced that technology (I name this in parallel with how I am balking at Facebook today). As FIC relied more heavily on email, postal letters went the way of the slide rule, and phone calls became more of a novelty. As Caroline participates minimally on email, our relationship has atrophied the last decade. To be sure, she remains an important friend (see my blog about her 80th birthday party March 19, 2008), but she's not swimming in the main channel with me any longer and our contacts are less frequent.

So I've told this story both ways. I don't think that email, the telephone, or even Twitter is inherently good or evil. But I do think they bend the twig, and so grows the tree. The Board's task as it faces Facebook right now is to make a thoughtful choice about which way we want the Fellowship's tree to grow, and then do our best to discern what level of participation in that technology will help us get there.

McLuhan is also remembered for a lesser-known quote that buoys me in these confusing times: "There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening." While I can't be sure he's right, I sleep better believing he is.


Unknown said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the blog today, as I always do. I am also reluctant to do Facebook and find Twitter a nuisance. However, if it goes the way that email did, I just may have to rethink Facebook. I liked the way you talked about using social media intelligently.. that's the key!

Unknown said...

Indeed. Social media are tools. The user decides how to use them. Sure, there are people who are on Facebook talking about the last hairball their cat spewed out, but there are also a whole bunch of really savvy, interesting people who filter out the dross. May I suggest "Six pixels of separation" by Mitch Joel as an interesting read to understand why these modes of communication are so popular and how they can be used intelligently.

Jeffrey Harris said...

I'm not a fan of Facebook or MySpace, but I wonder if you discussed MySpace at the FIC meeting? My friends and I don't use MySpace, but I'm told that's more a class issue than a representation of overall popularity.

I think your analogy to rejecting email is fascinating, but possibly misleading. If you wanted to, you could set up a Facebook account and never look at it except to accept friend requests (that's basically what I do). For the large and growing group of people who don't bother with email and want to Facebook message you, Facebook will send you an email.

It's as if someone for free were printing out all emails addressed to Caroline (but ignoring the mailing lists) and delivering them to her mailbox. I don't see much downside in this approach.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I've read about what social media "means" for the future of our communication. So much of what's out there is "Facebook Rocks!!!" or "Twitter is dumb". I think it's useful to think about these tools in terms of what we are gaining and what we are giving up--and then decide which ones to use (or not) in an intentional way.

Ma'ikwe said...

Hey all-- love to see the dialogue on this one! While I have a somewhat different take on my relationship with Facebook than Laird does (which is probably not too surprising) I think he makes some good points about it. I think that Facebook and similar phenomena is reflective of our society's general mobility... where 100 years ago, I may have only had one network (maybe two if I had long-lost family in some other part of the country) now I have a few dozen. Keeping track of it all is completely overwhelming. The positive side of Facebook and things like it for someone like me (who makes fairly strong connections based on non-trivial stuff pretty easily) is that I have a tool that can keep me plugged in to multiple places and "clans" simultaneously.

We've also had some really itneresting conversation recently with my family, who were not happy with how much personal info I have put up on Facebook. Where I pretty much figure I'm going to use Facebook (and everything else in my life) ONLY if I can be real and authentic-- which means a commitment, not unlike Laird's here, to being upfront about what is really happening with me, not just presenting cheerful and make-me-look-good sound bites... my family is concerned that this amounts to "too much information". (Sheesh-- they should read this thing!)

Fianlly, I'd like to put in a cheeky plug for my husband to join Facebook... where I get to stay connected with what's up with him via this blog (particularly in those long stretches when he's out on the road and I miss him horribly) he misses out on my outlet to tell everyone what's up with me by not getting an account on Facebook. It could be really good for equalizing the info flow in our relationship...

I'm just sayin'... M