Too Many People [en]

[fr] J'ai atteint un point où je n'ai plus envie de faire de nouvelles connaissances. Je n'arrive déjà pas à voir les gens qui me sont chers autant que je voudrais. En ligne, les relations "délicates" (asymétriques, par exemple) sont plus faciles à gérer qu'hors ligne. De plus, les outils de "réseautage en ligne" nous aident à rester en contact avec plus de personnes qu'il ne nous serait normalement possible. Quand tout ça passe hors ligne, cela frise l'overdose.

This is a post in which I expect to be misunderstood, judged, and which will probably upset some. But it’s something that needs to be spoken about, because I’m certain I’m not the only one going through this, and I think it’s strongly related to what changes the internet is bringing into our lives when it comes to relating to people.

I’ve argued many times that online relationships and behaviors in general reproduce what goes on offline, so it may seem that I’m contradicting myself somewhat. But I think it’s also clear for everybody in this space that technology does change the way we live with others. Right now I see that our world is changing — it’s a bit blurry ahead, and actually I’m quite scared to see more clearly — and in our lifetimes, chances are the nature of human relationships will be deeply impacted by the technologies we are using and developing.

If all this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. I’m not sure I understand what I’m saying myself. These might just be the tired rantings of a burnt-out and frustrated node in the network.

“Being an online person”, as I call it, means two things:

  • there are people out there who know you, sometimes quite well, but that you have never heard of
  • the “presence” dimension of our social tools allow you to keep in touch with more people (and better) than you would be able to offline

With their consequences, when your “online social life” goes offline:

  • micro-celebrity, micro-fame, fans
  • more relationships to nurture than the limited space and time permits

Our online social network does not necessarily translate well offline.

Let’s have a look at a few aspects of our relationships with others that we are maybe not necessarily the most proud of:

  • we like (or even love) some people more than others — or perhaps simply differently
  • we find some people more interesting than others
  • some people we are happy to spend long periods of time with, but infrequently — if we saw them every day they would drive us up the wall
  • some people we are happy to see a little each day, but would not want to spend a whole afternoon with
  • we sometimes want to spend time with one person (or some people) at the exclusion of others (others who can be people we care about, too)
  • we keep in touch with some people or are nice to them because they are useful to us
  • we like some people less than they like us (and vice-versa)
  • some people are business contacts to us, but would like to be our personal friend (or even get into our pants)

I think that if you look honestly, you will recognize yourself here. These facts about our social life are uncomfortable to deal with, and awkward. We don’t like thinking about them, much less talking about them. And we very rarely deal with them directly in the relationships they apply to.

Offline, we deal with a lot of this social awkwardness by avoiding it. This is why I argue that contact tagging, if done to structure our personal social network, must remain a private matter. We don’t tell some people certain things. We don’t mention that we’re meeting with Judy after lunch. We act a bit more distant with Tom than with Peter, hoping he’ll “get the message”. We tell Susie we’re too busy to see her, but drop everything when Mike invites us on a date.

Online, it’s even easier. We don’t respond to IMs or e-mails. We read certain blogs but not others. We chat absent-mindedly with Joe who is telling us his life-story, while we have a heart-to-heart discussion with Jack. We mark our status as DND but still respond to our best friend. We receive Twitter notifications on our phone from a select few, and keep a distracted eye on others’ updates. We lie more easily.

So, online, we actually have more freedom of movement (mainly because our emotional reactions are not so readily readable on the moment) to deal with some of these “awkward relationships” than offline — particularly, I would say, what I’d call the asymmetrical ones. From a networking point of view, being online is a huge advantage: the technology allows you to “stay in touch” with people who are geographically estranged from you, with a greater number of people than you could actually manage offline (“continuous partial friendship“), and it also allows you to keep in your network people who would probably not be in your offline circle, because it helps you tone down relationship awkwardness.

Conferences have lost their magic for me. I know, I know, I’m coming to this 18 months after everybody I know (I mean, I know I’m not alone and this is a normal process — but I’m still interested in analysing it). The first conferences I went to were bloody exciting. I got to meet all these people who were just names in my online universe, or with whom I’d been chatting for months or years, or whose blog I’d been reading in awe for ages. I made a lot of friends. (Maybe they wouldn’t agree, but that’s what it was like for me.) I met many people that I found interesting, likeable, wonderful, even. Some of them who also seemed to appreciate me back (as far as I can tell).

Over the last six months, conferences have become more and more frustrating. I’m speaking only of the social/networking aspect here. A dozen if not twenty people I really like are in town, sometimes more. Getting to see them offline is a rare occasion for me, and I’d like to spend half a day with each of them. But there is no time for that. People are here, and gone. They also have their other friends to see, which might not be mine.

To some, maybe, I’m “just another fan” — that I can live with, even if nobody likes being “just another fan”. But does one have to make conversation and appreciate every reader of one’s blog? If you like somebody’s blog, does that automatically mean they’re going to like you? Find your presence or conversation interesting? The hard reality of celebrity and fandom, even micro, is that the answer is “no”. It doesn’t mean that as a fan, I’m not an interesting person in my own right. It doesn’t mean that if I got to spend enough time with the person I’m fan of, they wouldn’t appreciate my company and find it enriching. But the fact I’m a fan, or a reader, doesn’t earn me any rights.

And increasingly, I’ve noted over the four or five last conferences I attended that there seem to be more people who want to get to know me than people I want to get to know. Or people who are interested in me for business reasons, but of the type where they get something out of me, and I don’t get much out of them. Or people who have been reading my blog for ages and are happy to be able to talk to me, but I know nothing of them.

I’ve reached a point where I don’t want any more people. I can’t keep up with my people, to start with. I feel spread too thin. I want to deepen relationships, not collect superficial ones. Contacts are useful for business, and though I’ve said many a time that the line between business and personal is more and more blurred, business contacts do not have to become personal friends. I know there are lots of wonderful people out there I don’t know. Lots of wonderful people I’ve maybe brushed aside or pushed away when suffering from “people overload”, when all I want to do is climb into my cave and stay there.

But you know, there are way too many great, interesting, fascinating people in the world to give them all the attention they deserve. Even if the world, here, is just “Web2.0-land”. But there is also a limit to how many meaningful conversations one can have in a day, and to how many meaningful relationships one can fit in a life. Those limits are personal. They vary from person to person. Some have them low, some have them high. But when the limit is reached, it’s reached.

So at some point, I need to choose who I spend my time with. In a very selfish way, I choose to give priority to the people in my life that I care for, and who bring me something. I’m there for me first, others after. I consider that one can only truly give and bring value to others when it is not at one’s own expense. I think this is valid in the economy of social relationships too. Being spread too thin impairs my ability to care — and I don’t want that.

Choosing who I spend my time with online is rather easy. I can tell the umpteenth guy who wants to “be friends” with me on IM that I have enough friends, I’m not looking for more, don’t chat with people I don’t know, and really can’t chat with him now. If he insists, I can ask him to leave me alone, and tell him that if he doesn’t, I’m going to have to block him. I can keep him out.

Offline, in a conference, it’s way more difficult. Maybe we need to take inspiration from Aram Bartholl and hang status messages around our necks, or chat windows (with curtains?) that we can close. I’m kidding, I honestly don’t think there is a real solution apart from being honest — in a socially acceptable and non-rejecting way (easier said than done).

I think we need more awareness of the complications offline to online transitions bring about. Maybe we’re going to have to start being explicit about these “social awkwardnesses” that I mentioned above — because changing the setting from online to offline makes it much more difficult to resolve them by ignoring them.

We’ve all been through the very unpleasant experience of being “stuck” in a conversation we don’t find interesting, but which is obviously fascinating for the other party. It happens even with our friends: I’m talking with Jill, and hear with my spare ear that Bill and Kate are talking about something much more interesting to me, but I can’t just dump Jill, can I? But what if Jill is somebody I’ve met 3 minutes ago — does that change anything? And of course, this dreadful thought: heck, could it be that I’m his/her Jill? Have I been the dreadful boring person one tries to shake off, without noticing?

These are human problems — they’re not technological. I feel I’m getting tired now and before I ramble too much (I feel I’m not very coherent anymore), I’ll don my flame-retardant suit (you never know) and hit publish. I’m looking forward to reading your reactions — whether you agree or disagree with me, of course.

26 thoughts on “Too Many People [en]

  1. We all are in somewhat in the middle of everything you say. Im a fan of some -including you- and have my own “fans”, some I’d like to chat with and have coffee with, and others whom I dont care to get to know (I might even get scared to know some of them…) So I do agree with you.

    But you must also recognize as your own right, to simply have a private-not-online-or-shared-whit-very-few-ones life. It is every writter, blogger, specialist, artist, reknownperson thing. We in Mexico call it being “mamon” (somewhat of a sucker) because you and only you, have the right to be selfish and selecto who you want to share with, eventought others might find you exclusive and might even get mad at you.

    And we have to get used to the idea that internet has made us all public and somewhat available in recent times. Reason powerfull enough to let others (readers, fans, etc.) that we like both sides communications but that does not make us friends at all. Keeping the distance, some say.

    Whats on the future? I belive the same thing than now, just tainted by a fusion of your real and online life. You get to know who ever you want -yes, being selfish with your life is correct (read Atlas Shruged if you dont get it)- if there is this “chemistry” thing on both sides. If they give you and you give them. And there will also be, as in real life, some circles and “times”. Are your friends from highschool the same to the time? Nope, at least not in my case. I’ve kept a very few. I belive my online friends will change also with the time…isnt it?

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  3. I can relate to a lot of what you write and I understand where you are coming from. From my point of view I have a lot of difficulty with superficiality and try to make what happens around me as meaningful as possible.

    In reality I have few friends because I am probably too “exacting” with those that I meet. I don’t relate well with shallowness and prefer to get to grips with “bigger questions”. I am realizing that that makes me somewhat “intense” so a lot less fun than someone who is able to relate on different levels 😉

    I think the problem with social networks is that there is a tendency to spread yourself very thinly and if you lack a large central core this can be very uncomfortable.

    Social networks seem to be somewhat similar to the whole web 2.0 phenomena. They are at great risk of implosion due to the sparkliness of new haunts that compete for our attention. You build somewhere and put a lot of effort into something and one day all your “friends” go elsewhere.

    I was very involved with the MMORPG community for a few years but my buddies and I stopped playing and it’s not the same online fun as it was.

    I was also very involved with Orkut too but those that I knew left and the whole Orkut scene seemed to shift to South America.

    I was starting to get into Facebook but I can’t deny that there is a rift in age groups which makes it hard for me to sustain a presence.

    So it seems to me (without unduly rambling) that often I have been out in the jungle looking for elephant footprints when the elephant is in reality at home.

    I think that ultimately (and surprisingly) my blog reflects me as I am which is why I keep on with it. What I will not do however is to be who I am not or try to portray me as someone different which would be unsustainable in the long term.

    I don’t comment here as much as I should but permit me to add that I had a lot of fun meeting you and it is only time and distance that have prevented me from showing up at Bloggy Fridays which is a shame as it is “only” 60km or so isn’t it.

    I’m proud to be a “fan” of yours and your blog and your posts are always a source of pleasure and discovery. I envy your travelling and all the friends you have but I could never do what you do and that’s fine. I must add that your intelligence and social concern shines through. We share bilinguality and some geographical proximity and I’m very happy and comfortable with my “place” in your social network.

    I wish you your deserved share of happiness and if I can contribute to that I will. Happy Sunday!

  4. A really interesting and thought provoking post !

    Yes, on one side, tools gives us new perspectives, on the other side, we are still the same old human being…

  5. To me online and offline social networks have always been two very different things, seperate. I think getting to know someone online, especially if it is not reciprocal, does not aleviate you from the necessity of getting to know the person offline and dealing with them according to their inclinations. Probably this isn’t makin much sense yet.

    I for example have met you before, but if I met you again, I wouldn’t expect you to remember me or give me any of your time. Simply because it was in a very public situation and we only talked very briefly. That I regularly read your blog, doesn’t mean you have any idea who I am. I’m not sure I’m making much more sense now.

    What I’m trying to say is simply: you are responsible for yourself, in your relationships as well as your work as wel as your life in general. Sometimes hopes of relationships might be disapointed, sometimes you miss someone you would have gotten along with exelently. But then again you seem to have a great network of people and good friends, is there any reason to spend less time with them because you might meet someone else that is as interesting? I feel not.


  6. Interesting. I spend most of my time on Livejournal, which uses pseudonyms usually, and I’ve recently started exploring technology blogs like yours (it was brilliant to be able to read all those entries about the conference, for example), but I’m blown away by the amount of intimacy people seem to confer on readers, almost as a matter of course, in this area. (Not that it is necessarily intimacy, but you know what I mean.)

    It seems like an awful lot to keep up with, or broadcast to, what with all these little channels that say where person X is and what they’re doing.

    Not entirely sure what my point is – perhaps that what I think I’m seeing in your world is a subculture which seems attractive but is actually quite exacting to be part of. It would unnerve me completely to have that kind of visibility – it sounds like you’re ‘always on’, for example, when you may not want or need to be so available.

  7. One of the problems of the “new social order” some of us early adopters inhabit is that we are in the middle of technology-inspired changes that are moving faster than the appropriate “social norms” can keep up with. As you’ve discovered (ref this post and your birthday in the US earlier this year), the etiquette we’ve been brought up with doesn’t adequately equip you for some of the situations you find yourself in (me – I don’t have your problem because I’m less visible ATM … I’m still “just a fan”!) and the “new etiquette” is still very much a work-in-progress.

    Transparency like this is a crucial step in that progress – somebody needs to start the dialogue rather than just block people or ignore them at conferences (declaring “social bankruptcy”?). Perhaps the next step is to advertise to your network your “social goals” PRIOR to attending the next conference – who you’d like to meet up with, what time you might have available for meeting “new” people, etc.

    That may seem a bit cold to those of us raised with a less confronting way of dealing with “real world strangers” socially (I suspect that our children will have less difficulty accepting this sort of approach), but I know I would find it less embarrassing and intrusive to know ahead of time whether or not you were willing to talk to me (as a “fan”, and someone only known to you virtually), and when/where it might be preferable to do so, if I were attending the same conference as you.

    Whatever the outcome (and assuming that your fireproof suit is up to the task!) I think this is a useful step towards a new set of social norms – brave work indeed!

  8. I looked at the video, but I’m afraid to say I don’t really see how it’s related! (other than the fact an inspirational speech can be related to just about any of the things of life…)

  9. This is an excellent post about something that is on my mind, too. I’m having a harder and harder time scaling. As my website is currently broken (for the last 6 days), I’ll spare sharing a link with you.

    But suffice to say that I hear you, and identify with you, and wish you the very best.

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