See you around on the interwebs: Relationships and communication technology

Wednesday, 23 September, 2009

Operating as a human being caught in a web of relationships is a complex process in the digital age. On the one hand, it's partly because we have so many more communication tools at our disposal to keep up with people—letter writing, postcards, telephone, mobile phone, SMS, email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, instant messenger, etc. etc. On the other hand (well, really, it's a related hand), these tools make communication a lot more immediate and intimate, not to mention easy. And on the other hand (well, again, it's a related hand), the plethora of tools means that we have a lot of choice in the way we communicate. (Okay, maybe those weren't separate hands, but fingers on the same hand.)

I feel I'm getting ahead of myself, so let me deal with one thing at a time.


I've often thought that a person's choice of communication tool is an outward manifestation of their means of relating. Certain communication tools suit certain personalities more than others. For example, for myself, I like hanging out with people in person, but if I can't do that (because of time or distance), I prefer the written mediums—letters, email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, SMS, and so on. It pleases me greatly that so many of our tools are text-based because I absolutely loathe the phone. (To quote H.L. Mencken, sometimes I wish “heartily that Alexander Graham Bell had been run over by an ice wagon at the age of 4.”. I know I'm not alone in this sentiment.)

This is also why it irks me when people say to other people, “Oh, you must join Facebook!” or “You must start a blog!” or “You must join Twitter!” Usually they haven't even thought about why they're saying that; they just want you to jump on the bandwagon (become one of us!) without considering the consequences. Or they're saying it because they enjoy writing blogs/using Facebook/Tweeting, and they reckon you will because they will. But they fail to take into account this principle—that certain communication technologies suit certain people, and certain ones don't—that all are different and are suited to different things.

Another example: MMORPGs (Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games; think Second Life, World of Warcraft, etc.) I'm not into them, but I know other people are, and I appreciate the value they add to their lives. But from what I know about MMORPGs, it's not the sort of thing I'd be into; I'm generally not into games (even when they're as innocuous as The Sims or Farmville).

The amount of choice we have in the way we communicate presents several problems. Firstly, if you're into more than one communication tool, it can be difficult to keep up with everything. (I'll talk a bit more about how I deal with that later.) Secondly, if you prefer certain technologies (the way I do), it usually means you let others slide (e.g. the telephone. This New York Times article about answering machines, voicemail and the generation gap makes an interesting point: answering machines cater to the older generation, and now that we have other forms of technology, they will gradually and, perhaps, gracefully die out. (I see the evidence of this in our lives; my mother-in-law is pretty much the only one who uses our answering machine. In fact, I sometimes think the only reason we have it is because of her, and I wonder what would happen if we decided to get rid of it.) Thirdly, because you let other technologies slide, it means that if other people don't use the same communication technologies as you do, it means it's harder to keep up with them because you have to go to more effort.

For example, I have friends who are phone people. I know they are phone people. I am not a phone person, but I will try to make an extra effort to call my phone friends if need be because I know they are phone people, and if I want to maintain a relationship with them when we are apart, that's what it's going to take. (Often, however, I use the phone as a means to an end—organising a time for me to catch up with them face to face so I don't have to be on the phone with them. And that's better for both of us.)

That said, if you subscribe to the maxim that “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan), you will appreciate each communication technology's benefits. When you and three other friends are trying to find a common date to go see a movie together, it's more efficient to call them or talk to them in person than to correspond by SMS. When you need to find out something quickly, sometimes it's faster to check if they're on IM and ask them quickly then than to send an email. And obviously, for some things, it is much much better to talk to a human than to a machine when you're doing things like trying to sort out the intricacies of your tax return. So even though I hate the phone, I will use it, and am relatively comfortable using it (in comparison to others I know who can't stand using it at all).

So there you go: a certain level of ability with the most commonly used pieces of communication technology can be helpful.

You and you and you and you

Another side effect of the ease, immediacy and intimacy of modern communication technology is the increase in the number of working relationships an individual has at any point in time. In the past (I imagine), your sphere of relationship was restricted to your immediate family, your extended family, your friends (who usually lived near you), your fellow students/work colleagues/business acquaintances, your church (if you went to church) and the neighbourhood (or maybe small town) where you lived. And as you grew up and people moved away, were born or died, those relationships would change. But the sphere would normally stay rather small because time and distance would just make it harder for you to keep in touch.

I had a number of friends from living in Canada—school friends, the children of my parents' friends, etc.—but when I moved here, although initially I kept up with a few of them via letters, after that I only really kept up with Josephine because she was a letter writer and I was a letter writer. (I learned then that not all of us are letter writers. See my previous point about our choice of technology reflecting our patterns of and preferences in relating.) We only correspond a couple of times a year, but that and a few face-to-face visits over the years has been enough to maintain the friendship.

The internet—and, in particular, Facebook—has changed all that. Facebook makes it so easy—mainly because there's only one thing you need to use (the Facebook portal), you don't need to download or install anything, and you don't need to remember addresses or phone numbers in order to contact your Facebook friends; all you need to do to send them a message or to write something on their wall is type their name into the search box. In addition, it's very easy to find people because the social networking aspect of the site allows you to scan lists of who knows who, who you might know and who might know you.

As a result, we are now in this unparalleled position where it is likely that the generation growing up now will be forever digitally connected to the people they went to preschool/primary school/high school/University with. Relationships will not peter off naturally because of time and distance; they can be continually maintained.

This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are, obviously, it is now easier to keep up with certain people that you have always wanted to keep up with, but couldn't for various reasons. Josephine is a good example: neither of us have time to pen those 20-page handwritten letters any more. But I can keep my finger on the pulse of what she's doing through Facebook. The internet brings us closer even as time and distance threaten to separate us.

The disadvantage is there now too many people to keep up with. I have 452 Facebook friends—most of whom I know in real life—or know of. The number of Facebook friends I have represent only a portion of the number of people I know in real life—relationships I have forged through family (all three branches of it), school, university, the various churches I've been a member of, the various Christian groups I've been involved with, work, and so on. The nature of my relationship with each Facebook friends varies; some are closer than others, of course. I certainly don't treat all my Facebook friends the same. How could I? There are only 168 hours in a week, and even if I devoted half an hour to each Facebook friend, there wouldn't be enough time to go around (let alone enough time to sleep).


All of this means that I've changed the way I use communication technology. I know the nature of relationships means that you can't bundle people into neat categories and treat the people in each bundle accordingly. But that said, you can concentrate on broad areas and do your best to be faithful in those relationships you are particularly committed to.

I am in a very fortunate position because so many of my closest friends use the same communication technologies that I do. It's sort of changed over time: it used to be blogs, it sort of transitioned to Facebook but quickly skipped over to Twitter. This is why I tend to concentrate most of my energies on Twitter: most of them are on it, and it's a lot less cluttered and distracting than Facebook. I still use the other technologies, but to a lesser degree, and when I do, I try to do so in a targetted fashion.

Let me explain:


I think I've ended up spending most of my time on Twitter because it fulfils a number of different needs and functions that other things used to. For example, newspapers: I used to read The Sydney Morning Herald, The New York Times and Salon.com by getting the headlines emailed to my inbox. I find these days I barely look at them; instead, I get my New York Times news on Twitter. Very recently I've been getting the SMH and The Australian too. All I really need to do is read the headlines; if I'm interested, I'll click further, but usually the headlines is all you need to stay in touch. (Unfortunately Salon.com is not on Twitter at the moment.)

In addition (and I can't remember if I've mentioned this already on this blog, so apologies if I have), Twitter has taken over the story of my life, “Blinks” , photoblog (well, to a certain extent) and even the “Current” blog sections of my site.

Like I said, however, many of my closest friends are on Twitter, and the microblogging/email/IM aspects of the technology make it easy to stay in touch with them. They're almost always there—in that ambient awareness thing that Clive Thompson talks about. It's not because I feel a compulsive Gen Y need to stay in touch; the advantage is that knowing what's going on in their lives helps me to pray for them, support them, care for them, encourage them, etc.

However, I try not to be compulsive about Twitter. It can get to a point where it's more annoying and intrusive than helpful. So in TweetDeck (the program I use most to post to and access Twitter), I've set the API refresh to around 10 minutes so that I'm not continually being pinged by updates.

(The recent update to TweetDeck is much more Facebook-friendly—to the point that my replies to other people are being posted there, and I now have the ability to comment on other people's status updates through Tweetdeck. This means I'm going to have to shift the way I use Tweetdeck a little ...)


Facebook would be the communication technology I use the most after Twitter (though it possibly rivals email ... I'll get to email in a sec). But unlike some people, I only use Facebook in a certain way. I don't play games on it. I don't use it much for IM (and when I do, I use Adium, which plugs into Facebook very nicely), and I rarely read my entire news feed. Really I just check it to see if someone's sent me a message, to respond to friend and events requests, to see who has commented on something I said (or something someone else said), to post links on other people's walls (and occasionally messages, but usually I prefer not to communicate with people on their walls because they're so public), and so on. Most of the time, I get in and then get out.

But one thing I've done on Facebook that I haven't really done on Twitter (well, I tried to create a group in Tweetdeck, but I don't use it much) is group my Facebook friends into Friends lists. I don't group everyone; I just group particular people—for example, family, work colleagues, church folk, school friends, the people I regard as my closest friends, etc. Friends lists are really useful because, firstly, they help you stay in touch with people through the ambient awareness thing I mentioned earlier (hopefully not in a cyberstalking sort of way!); secondly, they help you make sense of the chaos of your news feed by filtering it so you only see certain people; thirdly, you can filter who can see if you're online for IM purposes. With some of my lists, I even subscribe to the RSS feed in Bloglines so I don't miss what's happening in their lives.


Like I said above, the way that I use blogs has changed. I find I tend to only use my blog for longer pieces of writing, and I save all the shorter tidbits of things for Twitter. (I keep wondering whether I should change my blog design to incorporate more of Twitter but still haven't made up my mind.)

With my blogroll, things have also changed. I'm intentional about certain blogs (certainly the ones under “Friends”), but I also skim-read a lot. I try to comment, but I find these days that relating through blogs doesn't happen much anymore; commenting has moved more to Twitter and Facebook. Of course, I am continually behind, but I don't feel the need to keep up any more. I seem to be looking at blogs more for information or inspiration. I also tend to be using Bloglines less and Twitter more for blogs (as Luke pondered might happen).

This is interesting because my blogroll provided the initial list for my prayer cards (i.e. I group people into six categories— family and school friends, friends and blogroll, churches, universities, Bible college and Matthias Media, and missionaries—and theoretically pray through one card per day. I don't get to it every day, but I do for most days.) I've found that I still pray for the same people; I just keep in touch with what's happening in their lives in different ways—not just on blogs, but through other communication technologies.


As I've increased my activities in other communication technologies, email has suffered. This is sort of odd because email was where it started. But it's now becoming a less efficient means of communication. I tend to use emails more for work stuff (where, paradoxically, it is a more efficient means of communication—probably because when I'm in the office, it's set to download every three minutes and I deal with it as part of my job) and for newsletters (usually more newsletters I can skim and then delete, as opposed to people's prayer newsletters, which require more time and attention).

Farhad Manjoo's article on managing your email is probably the best thing I've read online on the subject. My system is similar, but my current problem is that I have a laptop for work and a desktop PC for home, but the laptop is more convenient and easier, so I end up using that way more than the PC. The problem is all my email, photos and files are on the PC, and I know I need to do something about them to back them up and transfer at least some of that content onto my PC, but finding a spare weekend to do that ... *sigh*.

Anyway, this is why I have become increasingly worse at replying to email. The system for home isn't working because of the dual computer thing, but the system for work is just awesome.

An inner ring?

All this talk of being more intentional and targetted is, I'm sure, making my strategies for coping sound a lot like what C.S. Lewis was talking about in “The Inner Ring”—a two-tiered (or even three-tiered) system where some people are regarded as better than others. (Andrew Cameron's lecture on that essay is well worth a read, by the way.) I don't want it to be that way. And I'm mindful of James 2:1-7: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory ...” I would argue that I'm talking about something slightly different: I'm making certain people a priority because they're family, church people or close friends, and I'm doing it out of necessity because you simply cannot have the same level of relationship with every single person that you know. It's impractical, plus you will burn yourself out doing it. (And if you don't, you'll get resentful and sin in your anger.) It's not about thinking certain people are better or more deserving; it's about making a commitment to particular relationships.

The one thing I haven't solved is what to do about new people. I remember Sandra King talking about Christians and relationships in Briefing #321—

I once heard it said that people are like Lego blocks. Each block has bumps on it and these bumps are used to join that block with other blocks. Not all blocks have the same number of bumps. The smallest blocks have just one bump; the largest ones can have forty or more.

Not all Christians have the same number of bumps. Some are good at making friends and maintaining relationships with lots of people. But others have different personalities and gifts. Some of us are timid, some of us are limited linguistically ...

and after reading that, I thought, “What if all your bumps are full? What if you just can't handle one more friendship—one more person?” You can't then go jettison some people (can you?) Well, from what I mentioned above, you can't; communication technology means we can never fall out of touch. I guess the degree to which you relate to people can change though ...

But really, all of this makes me look forward to heaven all the more. I keep thinking of John 17:3 and the Bible's definition of eternal life (which is not, by the way, primarily about living forever: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The triune God's capacity for unlimited relationship is somewhat enviable; could it be that in the new creation, we will have the capacity for the same?


Disqus comments

Other comments

Wow. Lots of things to pick up on there. It’s been interesting to see the changes to your blog these last 6-12 months: Twitter is certainly more immediate, but are there (gasp) downsides to having its constant buzz in the ear?

Is our (already fractured) ability to concentrate on a single relationship at a time further jeapordised by the regular buzz of tweetdeck (and worse yet, by the imagined sense of loss that goes with being off the grid)?

Or am I just projecting my own fears?

Personally I don’t feel that way. Maybe that’s something you should blog about?

I do like the way you ended this post - excellent thought.

Thanks Bec! Eternal life just keeps getting better and better ...

Fantastic post, Karen. Just great. Thanks!

Posted by Diane Lovell on 24 September, 2009 4:03 AM

Interesting post Karen - Thanks smile
I like the ending too! :D

Posted by sammi on 25 September, 2009 1:27 AM


Kinds of Blue: Cover art



A way of funding writing in the future: pitch and idea and get people to support it.

Place where you can hire play equipment for parties, etc.

How to recalibrate the home button on your iPhone.

Unsolicited manuscripts accepted by Pan Macmillan with certain conditions.

Thought Balloon is a group blog in which the writers tackle a new theme every week? month? with one-page scripts. This URL is for their Phonogram ones.


Social media