Saturday, September 5, 2009

The New New Media: Easing the Burden of Reciprocity

When I started writing a blog, I never would've guessed that one ancillary benefit would be that I've have a way to stay in touch with the dozen or so people I'd call close a format that's in many ways superior to e-mail.

The blog allows me to write about my thoughts on the world at large, on the region, on Lowell, or on whatever else. There's enough autobiographical stuff that gets naturally sprinkled in to where anyone who wants to stay in touch can do so by following, but not if they don't want to.

Let me explain.

To compare three forms of New New Media (blogs, Facebook, and Twitter), to two forms of New Media (e-mail and hand-portable cell phones), one major benefit to all the former is that they don't carry with them a burden of reciprocity.

Long-distance e-mail and phone conversations each have a structurally fatal design flaw -- the tit-for-tat, or "ping pong table" conversational model. A discussion that's started over e-mail -- say, by an old roommate looking to get back in touch -- is initially welcomed and reciprocated. But eventually, one of the two parties will receive a *salvo* from the other, will table it (even with the best intentions of later replying), will realize too much time has gone by, will begin to feel awkward about it, and then will just never respond. Much like a ping-pong player who can quickly end a volley with an unreturned shot, all the old model takes is for either party to drop out and the game ends.

The funny, and sometimes annoying thing I want to be sure to mention here is that this model leads to awkwardness that's often created not by the unrequited sender but by the not-so-diligent recipient. I've long held that it's not rude to table an e-mail or personal phone call unless there's a pointed question in it that demands a timely response (i.e. what time is the event, are you in town this weekend, etc. ) It happens, and it's understandable. What's a lot more irksome, however, is when someone assumes irrationality on the part of the sender (i.e. So-and-so must be stewing because he e-mailed me four months ago to say 'What's up?' and I still haven't gotten back). The irony of the whole thing is that initial sender has likely forgotten or has better things to worry about.

Anyway, back to my point -- Twitter, Facebook, and blogs share a very important feature in that, by design, none of them are built to demand reciprocity from anyone else. They give us the ability to keep in touch with, or maintain tabs on, any friend we want to...without asking for anything in return. It's like, if you update your Facebook status to say that you're "Sitting near the terminal at O'Hare eating nachos and drinking beer," all your 292 Facebook friends have the option to respond...or not to. Unlike a personal e-mail to just you, which might impose on you a feeling of reciprocity burden, you can just sort of nod and move on.

The same goes for Tweets. Twitter lets you follow anyone you want, but that can be done as passively as you want it to be. You might care, you might not, but either way, there's nothing being placed on you when I Tweet about the great new job or promotion. If I e-mail you or call you, however, the unspoken rule says that now you have to do something. Text messages seem to be somewhere in the middle -- as I've written before here on the blog, I find texting perfect for certain situations primarily because it's less intrusive than a phone call.

Blogs absolutely fall under the same header. Even writing for a small audience (being 'Famous for Fifteen People,' with apologies to P.T. Barnum) is far more efficient than taking the time and e-mailing fifteen close friends every time something significant happens, or every time a significant thought enters your mind. Your friends can then tune in or tune out as they wish. There's certainly no burden to read, there's no expectation to comment, and it shouldn't matter if someone stops reading for weeks or even months at a time...they can quickly scan to catch back up, but they don't have to. And no need for mass e-mails and those awkward apologies that come at the top (To this day, I've never felt mass e-mails were rude and I've never solicited or accepted the apologies that come with them).

It's there when they want it, and even the content can help steer their decision to read or not to read. I know there are some blogs I scan almost every day, and sometimes for less than 10 seconds -- if I know the topic doesn't interest me, I can just move on. If I care, I can stop and peruse the whole thing, and if I really think I can add value by doing so, I'll take the time to drop a comment in.

On balance, that's a WAY better way to stay at least loosely in touch with a large number of people than is trying to initiate and maintain dozens of simultaneous ping-pong rallies, all of which are inevitably bound to fail, and not necessarily through anyone's fault.

One single bulletin board seems like a better deal for all parties involved.


Renee said...

In your comment on Right Side of Lowell, you mentioned my blog not having comments. It's rough, I wish I could. It does look snobbish, doesn't?

At my first try I think I had none, then I tried it. Then I got my first comment that had no interest in the whole blog, just a subject that hit the media. They want to know nothing about you, or the numerous posts on the subject. Another time I received dozens posts disagreeing. Basically I must of been 'linked', even when I shut down comments a week later someone took the opportunity to write a lengthy email to me,. She just had to get her two cents in, I guess. Funny thing though, I had one anonymous poster, rethink the position. At least in my case. It didn't change his mind, but at least he didn't see me as 'evil'.

Just last week I was reading a progressive activists blog from Martha's Vineyard, found it reading up on the Brazilian population. While I might not agree with the author, I could neutrally read hundreds of posts over a course of time without the need to be on guard to defend my thoughts. You get a much better picture, of a real person. It allowed me understand and learn that next opportunity I have, I can frame my concerns differently.

The New Englander said...


I mentioned the no-comment policy for End of Nihilism just to give an example of a blog that doesn't have comments..I just see it as an author's choice thing -- the neutrality thing is a good point, but I like the option because of examples where people can add concrete examples to ideas or to challenge what I write...thankfully, I've been lucky not to have trollers or spammers. I don't pre-screen comments,but if I ever did get anything strange (i.e. spam or hate speech) I would have to, because too often people blur 'blogger' with 'commenter.'

Would be curious to hear your thoughts on Globe and Sun comments -- I know a lot of people hate them, but I think it's interesting to see people's raw thoughts on stories that appear in the paper..