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](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/05/04/groups-groupings-and-taming-my-buddy-list-and-twitter/). 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](http://www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-may04-07.html#twitter)”), 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](http://datenform.de/) 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.

Similar Posts:

Ethics and Privacy in the Digital Age [en]

[fr] Même si tout le contenu numérique que nous produisons court le risque de se retrouver un jour sur l'internet public, cela ne veut pas dire pour autant qu'il est acceptable de rendre public des informations qui ne le sont pas.

En l'occurrence, les réseaux sociaux comme Facebook permettent uniquement aux amis ou contacts d'un utilisateur d'avoir accès à leur profil. On n'y pense souvent pas, mais de plus en plus, ce qu'on peut voir sur le web dépend de qui nous sommes, et des relations (enregistrées) que l'on entretient avec d'autres utilisateurs.

Il convient donc d'être vigilant, sous peine de commettre des erreurs diplomatiques. Un ami à moi a ainsi rendu public aux 10'000 lecteurs d'IBcom une partie de mon profil Facebook, en illustration d'un article qu'il a écrit. Pas de gros désastre heureusement, mais s'il m'avait demandé, j'aurais tout de même fait un peu le ménage avant qu'il fasse sa saisie d'écran.

Over the last year, I’ve repeatedly asked for finer privacy control in the social tools I’m using (see [here](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2006/12/12/you-should-twitter/), [here](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/02/13/please-make-holes-in-my-buckets/), [here](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/03/24/brainstormdiscussion-the-future-of-blogging-technology-gabor-cselle/), [here](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/05/04/groups-groupings-and-taming-my-buddy-list-and-twitter/) and [here](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/08/16/we-need-structured-portable-social-networks-spsn/)).

To summarize, tools need to let users add **structure** to their social networks, which in turn will allow privacy management of data made available in or through the tool: “let people I tagged X see everything, let people I tagged Y see this and that, and let people I tagged Z see everything apart from that.”

If you think of how relationships and social networks function offline, this makes perfect sense: some people are part of your friends circle, some people are close friends, some people are co-workers, some people are acquaintances, others are business contacts, judo pals, people you meet up with to play cards. And you don’t say the same things about yourself to all those people.

Your “social network” is not homogeneous. It’s a collection of little sub-communities (which can be as small as one person), with fuzzy edges, overlapping, ever-changing. Why on earth an online social network should place all the people I’m connected to on one level (or even two, or three levels) is beyond me.

Were getting there (but way too slowly). [Pownce](http://pownce.com) and [Viddler](http://viddler.com) allow you to tag your contacts and use those tags to control privacy (though with interface issues). [Facebook](http://facebook.com), [Flickr](http://flickr.com), and probably various others don’t allow you to tag your contacts, but do provide a few (insufficient) levels of privacy. [Twitter](http://twitter.com) lets you choose if you want to protect your updates.

What I’m getting to is that in today’s web of social tools, what you get to see is more and more personalized. And **the information you can access about other people is often the result of your relationship to those people**, and what they decided to give you access to. **Just like in offline relationships.** This means that you, as the person with access to the data, **have an ethical responsibility towards the person who made some of his/her personal information available to you**.

**Because you have access to it, does that mean you have the right to publish it in a more public space? Well, I’d say the answer is most obviously “no”. By doing that, you’re betraying the trust of the person who made the data available to you.**

Now, of course, I’m the first to say that [you cannot control digital stuff you create](http://www.ciao.ch/f/internet/infos/2.3) and should be aware that you run the risk of seeing your private digital data ending up on the public internet at some point. “Even if it’s in a private setting, anybody can copy it and make it public.” Sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s *right* to do so.

So, why am I writing this? Somebody just brought to my attention that [IB com](http://www.ib-com.ch/) published an article about Facebook in their latest issue. And **to illustrate that article, a screenshot of my Facebook profile was used**. The article was written by a friend of mine (“friendly-business-acquaintance” friend), who obviously had access to my “friends only” Facebook profile.

He didn’t ask me if it was OK to publish my Facebook profile in print. If he had, I might have said “no”, but I might also have simply sanitized my profile so that he could take a screenshot I would have felt comfortable showing to the public.

He didn’t realize that by publishing my Facebook profile or showing it to others outside my friends’ circle, he is making information I would like to keep somewhat private available to people I would not necessarily choose to give it to. In this case, it’s not disastrous, because I *am* pretty conservative about what I put online, even on my Facebook profile (and I’m more transparent then most, so there aren’t *many* things I keep private). But there are at times things there I would rather keep for people I know — not the 10’000 readers of IBcom.

Just like most bloggers do not consider everything said in a conversation over a glass of beer “fair game” for blogging (when in doubt, ask, unless you’re ready to jeopardize your relationships over this kind of stuff), not everything you access in social networks is fair game for publication.

As social networks get smarter about privacy, I think we’re going to bump into this kind of problem more. For the moment, it’s up to each of us to be vigilant about what we take of others’ content and make available elsewhere. And maybe we need tools that can help us keep track of privacy settings better, and warn us when we’re about to make such a “faux pas”.

Similar Posts:

We Need Structured Portable Social Networks (SPSN) [en]

[fr] Nous avons besoin de réseaux sociaux que l'on peut importer/exporter d'un outil/service à l'autre. Nous avons également besoin de pouvoir structurer ces réseaux sociaux qui contiennent souvent un nombre important de personnes. Nous avons besoin de réseaux sociaux portables structurés.

Christophe Ducamp s'est lancé dans une traduction de cet article. Allez donner un coup de main ou bien en profiter, selon vos compétences! Je n'ai pas lu cette traduction, mais je suis certaine qu'elle est utile. Merci Christophe!

Scrolling through my “trash” e-mail address to report spam, I spotted (quite by chance, I have to say) a nice e-mail from Barney, who works at [Lijit](http://www.lijit.com/). Barney asked me if I had any feedback, [which I’ll give in my next post](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/08/16/lijit-feedback/), because I need to digress a bit here.

Lijit is a really fun and smart search tool which allows to [search through a person’s complete online presence](http://www.lijit.com/users/steph “See mine.”), a remedy, in a way, to the increasing [fragmentation of online identity](http://twitter.com/stephtara/statuses/200579442) that’s bothering me so much these days. Actually, it was already bothering me quite a few months ago, when I wrote [Please Make Holes in My Buckets](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/02/13/please-make-holes-in-my-buckets/):

>So, here’s a hole in the buckets that I really like: I’ve seen this in many services, but the first time I saw it was on Myspace. “Let us peek in your GMail contacts, and we’ll tell you who already has an account — and let you invite the others.” When I saw that, it scared me (”OMG! Myspace sticking its nose in my e-mail!”) but I also found it really exciting. Now, it would be even better if I could say “import friends and family from Flickr” or “let me choose amongst my IM buddies”, but it’s a good start. Yes, there’s a danger: no, I don’t want to spam invitations to your service to the 450 unknown adresses you found in my contacts, thankyouverymuch. Plaxo is a way to do this (I’ve seen it criticised but I can’t precisely remember why). Facebook does it, which means that within 2 minutes you can already have friends in the network. Twitter doesn’t, which means you have to painstakingly go through your friends of friends lists to get started. I think coComment and any “friend-powered” service should allow us to import contacts like that by now. And yes, sure, privacy issues.

One thing the 2.0 world needs urgently is a way to abstract (to some extent) the social network users create for themselves from the particular *service* it is linked to. **We need portable social networks.** More than that, actually, we need **structured portable social networks** (SPSNs). I’ve already written that being able to give one’s “contact list” a structure (through “contact groups” or “buddy groups”) is vital if we want to manage privacy efficiently (in my horrendously long but — from my point of view of course — really important post “[Groups, Groupings, and Taming My Buddy List. And Twitter.](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/05/04/groups-groupings-and-taming-my-buddy-list-and-twitter/)”):

> I personally think that it is also the key to managing many privacy issues intelligently. How do I organise the people in my world? Well, of course, it’s fuzzy, shifting, changing. But if I look at my IM buddy list, I might notice that I have classified the people on it to some point: I might have “close friends”, “co-workers”, “blog friends”, “offline friends”, “IRC friends”, “girlfriends”, “ex-clients”, “boring stalkers”, “other people”, “tech support”… I might not want to make public which groups my buddies belong to, or worse, let them know (especially if I’ve put them in “boring stalkers” or “tech support” and suspect that they might have placed me in “best friends” or “love interests”… yes, human relationships can be complicated…)

> Flickr offers a half-baked version of this. […]

> A more useful way to let a user organise his contacts is simply to let him tag them. Xing does that. Unfortunately, it does not allow one to do much with the contact groups thus defined, besides displaying contacts by tag […].

In fact, we need structured social networks not only to deal with privacy issues, but also (and it’s related, if you think of it) to deal with social network fatigue that seems to be hitting many of us. I actually have been holding off writing a rather detailed post in response to [danah](http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/)’s post explaining that [Facebook is loosing its context for her](http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2007/08/10/loss_of_context.html) — something that, in my words, I would describe as “Facebook is becoming impossible to manage in a way that makes sense with my life and relationships.” Here’s what she says:

> Le sigh. I lost control over my Facebook tonight. Or rather, the context got destroyed. For months, I’ve been ignoring most friend requests. Tonight, I gave up and accepted most of them. I have been facing the precise dilemma that I write about in my articles: what constitutes a “friend”? Where’s the line? For Facebook, I had been only accepting friend requests from people that I went to school with and folks who have socialized at my house. But what about people that I enjoy talking with at conferences? What about people who so kindly read and comment on this blog? What about people I respect? What about people who appreciate my research but whom I have not yet met? I started feeling guilty as people poked me and emailed me to ask why I hadn’t accepted their friend request. My personal boundaries didn’t matter – my act of ignorance was deemed rude by those that didn’t share my social expectations.

danah boyd, loss of context for me on Facebook

I think that what danah is expressing here is one possible explanation to why people are first really excited about new social networking sites/services/tools/whatevers (YASNs) and then abandon them: at one point, or “contact list” becomes unmanageable. At the beginning, not everybody is on the YASN: just us geeky early adopters — and at the beginning, just a few of us. We have a dozen contacts or so. Then it grows: 30, 50, 60… We’re highly connected people. Like danah, many of us are somewhat public figures. From “friends of our heart”, we start getting requests from **people who are part of our network but don’t fit in *segment* we want to reserve this YASN to**. We start refusing requests, and then give in, and then a lot of the value the YASN could have for us is lost.

Unless YASNs offer us an easy way to structure our social network, this is going to happen over and over and over again. For the moment, [Pownce](http://pownce.com) and [Viddler](http://viddler.com) allow me to structure my social network. A lot of work still needs to be done in the interface department for this kind of feature. (Yes, [Twitter](http://twitter.com), I’m looking at you. You said “soon”.)

So, to summarize, we need **tools and services** which make our **social networks**

– **portable**: so that we can import and export our relationships to other people from one service to another
– **structured**: so that we can manage the huge number of relationships, of varying and very personal degrees of intimacy, that highly connected online people have.

**Update, an hour or so later:** [Kevin Marks](http://epeus.blogspot.com) points me to [social network portability](http://microformats.org/wiki/social-network-portability) on the microformats wiki. Yeah, should have done my homework, but remember, this post started out as a quick reply to an e-mail. Anyway, this is good. There is hope.

Similar Posts:

LIFT'07 Social Networking Map Experiment [en]

[fr] Si vous étiez à LIFT'07, remplissez le questionnaire pour l'expérience de Social Networking Mapping!

I can only encourage you to [participate in the LIFT’07 Social Networking Map Experiment](http://www.liftconference.com/flow/?p=47) if you attended the conference. It takes a little while to complete, depending on how extroverted you are, I guess. And if you hang out with [evil supernodes](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernode), too.

Listing the people I knew before the conference wasn’t too hard, though of course I had to plough through [the list](http://www.liftconference.com/2007/people/participants). Here are the names I came up with:

*Henriette Weber Andersen, Jean-Christophe Anex, Bieler Batiste, Yoan Blanc, Florent Bondoux, Stowe Boyd, Raphaël Briner, Stefana Broadbent, Lee Bryant, Marie Laure Burgener, Riccardo Cambiassi, Jérôme Chevillat, Marco Chong, Matthew Colebourne, Samuel Crausaz, Thierry Crouzet, Pedro Custodio, Nicolas Dengler, Jens-Christian Fischer, Antonio Fontes, David Galipeau, Bruno Giussani, Tanguy Griffon, Matthias Gutfeldt, Laurent Haug, Peter Hogenkamp, Dannie Jost, Christophe Lemoine, Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, Yann Mauchamp, Geneviève Morand, Philippe Mottaz, Hugo Neves da Silva, Nicolas Nova, Bjoern Ognibeni, Roberto Ortelli, Jean-Olivier PAIN, Marc-Olivier Peyer, Bernard Rappaz, Andre Ribeirinho, Martin Roell, Pascal Rossini, Robert Scoble, Rodrigo Sepulveda Schulz, Joshua Sierles, Nicole Simon, John Staehli, Elisabeth Stoudmann, Sandrine Szabo, Olivier Tripet, Guido Van nispen, Benjamin Voigt, Alfonso Von Wunschheim, Ellen Wallace, Bertrand Waridel, Mark Wubben, Chris Zumbrunn, Jan Zuppinger*

“New people” I met at the conference was more difficult, firstly because I didn’t get the names of everyone and business cards are only *so* helpful, particularly when you don’t have any for the people you talked to, and secondly because *many* people did not include a photo in their profile on the site, or any information about themselves. Here’s the list I managed to compile:

*Jeremy Allen, Paula do O Barreto, Nuno Barreto, Brian Cox, Florian Egger, Ramon Guiu Hernandez, Noel Hidalgo, Lisette Hoogstrate, Tom Klinkowstein, Trine-Maria Kristensen, Maya Lotan, Gia Milinovich, Glenn O’neil, Nortey Omaboe, Michele Perras, Ivan Pope, Derek Powazek, Thomas Purves, Dieter Rappold, Colin Schlueter, Maryam Scoble, Sebina Sivac-Bryant, Jewel THOMAS, David Touvet, Remo Uherek, Sarah Wade Hutman*

A much smaller list, as you can see. Well, as I knew quite a lot of people to start with, I guess it’s expected to be short — but I’m sure this is at most the two-thirds of the people I met. If we talked and you’re not listed, let me know!

One methodological problem I can see with [the survey](http://optima.benchpoint.com/optima/SurveyPop.aspx?query=view&SurveyID=185&SS=S1OXZSiJ) is that “already knew” and “met for the first time” are not clearly defined. I’ve taken a really wide interpretation of those expressions for this survey. I’m not sure absolutely everyone on my first list would consider they “know” me. Or if I haven’t met a person yet but we’ve got common friends and I’ve followed a lot about them, do I “know” them? Ditto for “met for the first time”. I’d interacted with [Gia](http://www.giagia.co.uk/) online after LIFT’06, but this is the first time we talked offline, for example.

Anyway… interested in seeing what will come out of this. Please take the survey!

Similar Posts:

Addicted to Technology! [en]

[fr] Une longue tirade, malheureusement pas vraiment traduisible vu l'heure et la longueur, sur la dépendance à internet, qui est à mon avis un faux problème. J'y parle de notre définition de la technologie (une voiture, c'est aussi de la technologie, et on ne s'alarme pas des gens qui seraient "dépendants de leur voiture" comme on le fait de ceux qui sont "dépendants de leur ordinateur"), de la valeur (petite) généralement accordée aux rapports humains qui passent à travers un ordinateur, de l'insuffisance de la "déconnexion" pour résoudre un problème d'utilisation excessive de cet outil, puisqu'il reste un outil valable et même indispensable pour certains, même si c'est un lieu privilégié de fuite.

Help! we’re all becoming [addicted to technology](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/02/09/technological-overload-panel/ “Panel on technological overload which concluded by asking for the best way to unplug.”)! Think of it… we’re soon going to be merged to our computers and cellphones, and we already have a hard time living without them. Heck, we can’t even spend a day without chatting or checking our e-mail! Or our blog comments! Where is the world going?

#### What technology?

Let’s take a few steps back, shall we? First of all, please define technology. Do we consider that we are “addicted” on our cars? Our clothes? Our flats? The postal system, goods manufacturing and distribution, the newspaper? Oh, but those things are actually *necessary*, not superfluous like all this internet/computer/techy stuff. *That’s* what we mean by “technology”. People could communicate very well without IM and cellphones and e-mail, couldn’t they? So, shouldn’t we strive to remember that “real” human relationships happen outside the realm of all this “technology-mediated” communication?

Wrong.

Cars are technology. The banking system, and similar infrastructures our world relies on, are in their way a form of technology, and certainly, built upon technology. People who argue that cars, fixed landlines, or shoes are more “necessary” than IM are simply stuck with [views on what “technology” is and its value that are dictated by the state of the world when they came into it](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2005/11/11/you-and-technology/). (Read [original material by Douglas Adams](http://www.douglasadams.com/dna/19990901-00-a.html).)

We consider things like fixed phones and the postal system like something we *need* because they have been around for so long that our society and the individuals inside it have completely adapted to having them around, relying upon them, and using them. It is “normal” to feel uncomfortable or jittery if your phone landline is cut or if your watch breaks down. But somehow, it is not “normal” to feel uncomfortable or jittery when we can’t check our e-mail for 24 hours.

Computers, the internet, and the various programs we use are *tools*, like the phone and our vehicles. They allow us to get things done, interact and connect with others, and also enjoy some recreation. Of course, they can be over-used. Of course, some people will have an unhealthy or even pathological utilisation of them. But they differ from the classical objects of “addiction”, like drugs, which (usually) do not serve a directly constructive purpose.

#### Addicted to our cars

I find it very problematic to speak about “addiction” regarding computers or the internet, partly because it makes it look like the problem is with the tool (instead of the person), and partly because it is very difficult to draw the line between healthy and unhealthy use of the tool without taking in many environmental and personal factors.

I think that making a comparison between computer and car usage is quite enlightening in that respect. They have in common that they are a form of technology, they have a use, and can be abused. Yet we worry about addiction to computers, but not so much about addiction to cars. Let’s have a closer look.

A car is not a vital necessity. Before cars existed, humanity managed to survive for quite a long time, and wasn’t necessarily worse off (I guess that judgement depends on one’s view of progress). However, nowadays, depending on where you live and what your lifestyle is, it’s hard to get by without a car (though [possible](http://twitter.com/stephtara/statuses/5426092) by making some arrangements). Would we consider somebody who uses their car everyday “addicted”? Most certainly not, because probably the main reason the car is needed is to commute to work. But what if one likes going to drive around in the countryside every week-end? Or takes the car to drive to the store when it is 5 minutes away on foot? Or uses the car for comfort, when public transport could be used? What about the distress one can end up when a car breaks down and has to be taken to the garage? Would anybody dream of speaking of addiction here?

Just as the car allows us to easily cover long distances, the computer allows us to do things we could not normally do without. It’s technology. Now, if the way we live tends to require or expect us to do these things, the technology becomes “necessary”, and not “superfluous”. Makes sense?

#### Nurturing online relationships has little value (not)

One problem with applying the reasoning I did for the car to the computer has in my opinion been touched upon in the [LIFT’07 panel I mentioned previously](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/02/09/technological-overload-panel/): the blurring of the distinction between what is “work” (ie, “necessary”) and “personal” (“not that necessary”). Aimlessly chatting on IRC can actually be very important for my professional life. In general, taking care of one’s network (really: taking care of the relationships we have with other human beings we know) is something which should not be considered “superfluous”. During the panel, Stefana Broadbent mentioned that technology allowed us to actually keep alive (“manage”) a greater number of relationships than what we would be capable of without. Which leads us to the second problem: human relationships which take place “through the internet” are less valued in today’s world than the “real” ones which take place face-to-face.

What’s missing here is that “virtual” (how I hate that word in this context) interaction is not there to “replace” face-to-face interaction, or traditional communication technologies like the written letter, the fax, or the phone. IM, chat, blogging and e-mail most often keeps people in touch when they would *not* be communicating at all. I would not be keeping friendships alive across the Atlantic without my computer. And some of these friendships are no less valuable than the relationships I have with people I get to see in the flesh more often because they live in my hometown.

But more than that, these “poorer” channels of communication open up different dimensions in the way we relate to others. I’ve heard this said twice recently (though I’ve been aware of it through personal experience for years). First by [Regina Lynn](http://www.reginalynn.com/wordpress/) in her (well worth reading) book [The Sexual Revolution 2.0](http://www.reginalynn.com/wordpress/?page%20id=2). At some point, she explains that for those who are used to texting and IMing in the context of a romantic relationship, the absence of these “channels” makes it feel like there is something missing in the relationship. Second, Stefana Broadbent (again on the LIFT’07 panel, link above) mentioned that the arrival of Skype and VoiP did not kill chat — people are still chatting even though they could use the richer communication channel and actually talk.

This is not surprising. We know that some things are easier to say or more adapted to this or that communication channel. It’s not news either — using letters or the phone rather than face-to-face is not always a choice made for questions of distance or availability.

#### If not addiction, then what?

Of course, as I mentioned, there are unhealthy uses of computer technology. And computer technology has [characteristics that help us get “hooked”](http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/03/clicker_trained.html), so it won’t be surprising that people might use it compulsively or excessively. And for people who for a reason or another (and I at times can include myself in that lot) need to “escape” life/reality/pain, goofing around aimlessly online or chatting for hours with random strangers can be used as an alternative to getting drunk/stoned/passing out in front of the TV/reading all Harry Potter books cover-to-cover without interruption. But is it right to talk about “addiction” in such cases?

Whatever you call it, the problem here is that you can’t just tell the people to “unplug” as a solution. For most people who have built part of their life around the internet, the computer is a valuable tool for work and social life. And anyway, even with substance abuse addictions, [going “cold turkey” does not solve the real problem](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2002/09/22/games-people-play-alcoholicaddict/), though it’s usually better for your health. (I have personal experience from “the other side”, here: I have never in my whole life even tried smoking a cigarette, because I sense that if I did, there are high chances I would turn into a heavy smoker. I’m not free. One could say I have an addiction problem, even though it is not manifest in substance abuse. It’s latent and finds an expression in total abstinence.)

If the computer is used excessively, it is necessary to address the *real* underlying problem. The “thing” that makes people need to escape to somewhere. Because the line between “normal use of the tool” (I need to chat to some extent to keep in touch with my friends/family/collegues) and “excessive use” (I spend all my free time chatting, forget to eat, and don’t go out anymore) is drawn in *quality* rather than *quantity* and does not comprise a clear border like a different environment, schedule, or tool, the “easy” solution of “quitting” does not work.

Then, how does one determine if one’s use of the computer is *excessive*? I like to say that the main defining criteria for this kind of problem is **pain**. Is the intensity with which one uses the computer (or cellphone, or whatever) a source of suffering? Does the person feel that it’s out of control, and would like to do something about it? Is it having concrete effects like work loss, strain on relationships, or is there dissimulation regarding the time spent at it, hinting at a general unease about the time that is used on the computer? The secondary criteria would be **purpose**. Addiction or escape serve a purpose (shields one from something). Is it the case? What is this purpose? It’s not a simple question, and it often doesn’t have a simple answer, and addressing it might even involve a therapist.

#### Not that addicted…

I find that the mainstream press and certain specialists (doctors or teachers I’ve met) are a bit quick to shout “addiction” when faced with the importance the computer and the internet have taken in our lives. I’m not an “addict” because I get uncomfortable if I haven’t accessed my e-mail in 24 hours. I’m not an “addict” because I chat to my friends from the other side of the pond every day. I’m not an addict because when I think of something interesting, I feel an urge to write about it on my blog. I’m not an addict because I need my computer to take notes during a conference, rather than a paper and pen with which I’m illegible and which [hurts me](http://climbtothestars.org/tms “I can type OK and be readable if I have very mild pain, but handwriting hurts a lot and is just useless.”). I’m not an addict because I sometimes choose to stay in and catch up with what people I know are saying on their blogs rather than go out clubbing.

Yes, when I’m not doing too well I will easily turn to my computer to escape from the world or myself. Before I had a computer and a social life on the internet, I used to turn to the TV in such occasions, or drown myself in books or music. One isn’t better than the other. But here, clearly, the problem is me, and not the nasty technology.

*If you’ve read all this, let me know what you think. I suspect I might have taken a few shortcuts here and there, and I’ll be more than happy to make them explicit if you point out what isn’t convincing.*

Similar Posts: