The Asymmetric World We Live In

For those of you that are men (or women) of a certain age (as close to the age of the characters of the wonderfully named TV show), it will come as no surprise that the focus of our communications tools these days is social networks. But how our communications have evolved from synchronous to asynchronous is less well thought out.

Back when I was growing up in corporate America, we were coming off the mainframe era where most of the communications were encapsulated inside manila inter-office memos. That was mostly asynch – you received the memo and acted accordingly. Then came DISSOS and PROFS and the ability to email someone, and we quickly made the transition to more synchronous times. No more waiting, or so it seemed. It took a good ten years or so before email became the lifeblood of corporate communications, and this was before the Internet really took off in the middle 1990s, when dot coms could be purchased by anyone with a credit card.

But email wasn’t synchronous enough, and we needed instant responses, and by the middle 1990s IM became the main mechanism to tie together distributed workgroups and get things done. In my new position at ReadWriteWweb, I would be lost without the numerous Skype chat rooms and IMs that fly back and forth across the globe as our staff coordinates their work.

But IMs are so last five-minutes-ago, and now we live in the age of social networking. Last week our staff got onboard Google+, which is a better mousetrap than Facebook, or something like that. But it is completely asynch: you post something to your “stream” or to your “circle” of friends. Like Twitter, you “follow” people that you want to track their activities or bon mots or ideas of the moment. To get the best use out of any of these services, you want to set up different groupings of your contacts for different purposes. Just like there is that loudmouth in your office that always hangs out by the water cooler (Do offices even have water coolers anymore? Do we even work in offices anymore? Nevermind.) that you routinely ignore, you want to defriend or defollow the electronic equivalent on your networks.

The “aha” moment for me with G+ is that now I have an opportunity to construct my social graph from scratch, making the circles match my actual behavior, rather than just lumping everyone together under “friend.” It is my chance to truly turn my communications into an effective asynch tool. And like my boss, I am less enamored with G+ and pine for those simpler days; the only difference is I, being somewhat older, wish to return to the safety of my email Inbox, rather than the blog.

In other words, just because someone is my friend doesn’t mean I am theirs, and vice-versa. And with G+, we have an opportunity, if we want to take the time, to really understand the nature of our networks and segregate our contacts to take advantage of this disparity.

But here is the rub: serendipity accounts for a lot in my online life. Being a journalist, I try to connect to a lot of people and collect a lot of information. My Facebook account is a mess: I know there are people there that I have never met, and never corresponded with or otherwise interacted. Yet, I want to “friend” them because I value their opinion and sometimes see their updates in my feed that stimulate something for me personally or professionally.

When many of us older folks first got on Facebook et al. we were obsessed with the junior high (do they even call it that anymore?) mentality of pushing our numbers up, no one wanted to be sitting at the table of misfits in the back of the cafeteria, the people with no other friends. Well, I was one of those dorks back then, and could never aspire to be the cool kid in black with piercings everywhere that has 5,000 Facebook friends these days. Even though being a nerd is suddenly somewhat cool, or at least cooler. (An interesting review of Alexandra Robbins’ book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth can be found talking about this experience in the New York Times .)

Does this mean that pendulum has swung as far over in the asynch side as possible? I think few of us will take the time to elegantly structure our social networks in G+, but maybe not. And now we have so many mechanisms to communicate that it is hard sometimes to keep track – do I DM, IM, Face-M, post a comment, write a counter-riposte (as I am doing here), cross-post, StumbleUpon, or just send a simple email? You got me.

And for those of you not of a certain age, the photo at the top is from the from the Tracy/Hepburn movie The Desk Set which was made in 1957 and features the two stars who are conflicted about the computerization of a TV station’s research department. Of course, the computer depicted was the size of a room.

2 thoughts on “The Asymmetric World We Live In

  1. The concept of circles of friends of different groups is exactly what is needed to be able to have synch or async communications. Being a man of a certain age myself, I have carefully crafted groups within the Facebook environment, but it was not easy. Each posting is either general or specific to a specific group. I don’t have G+ yet but am anxious to try it out, as it may be a time saver. All or nothing friendship does not work in real life or in virtual life.

  2. There are actually two sides to this: one is sharing information and the other is gathering. Sharing is broken but at least it’s relatively easy to do; gathering/parsing is completely broken.

    David: I’ll let you know when I have something that fixes the gathering side.🙂

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