I seem to be on a negatively-trending plane lately, finding dark clouds behind silver linings, talking about how the hive mind may be dumbing us down and trying to come up with ways to cynically manipulate the masses to do something of tangible worth (for a change) — I feel a little bit like Bizarro Andy Rooney (just as crotchety, more irreverent, less irrelevant).
Previously, I’ve written about how social media, particularly mobile social media, have the potential to take us out of the moment we’re physically in. Closely related to that, I’m now wondering why mobile social media — particularly text-based mobile messaging — seems to bring out the worst in people.
It’s not just everyday rudeness that we run into as we shifting social barriers to determine the appropriateness of different conversations in context: Cashiers (and customers) talking on the phone during transactions; texting while you’re on a date; posting to Twitter from the… toilet. Because of the ubiquity and pervasiveness of mobile social communications, we’ve seen Boston trolley operators, LA train engineers, and San Antonio bus drivers texting to calamitous effect. (And not to beat up on the municipal side, don’t forget regular idiots texting while driving.)
Still, even throwing in “sexting” moral panics and texting while intoxicated and all the other stumbles we’re hitting, I’m reminded of a theme from Battlestar Galactica: All this has happened before, and will happen again.
Lest we forget, back in the late 80s – early 90s, when police officers started getting mobile data terminals installed in their cruisers, some of them also got into trouble. Not for crashing, but for sending obscene, racist, or otherwise inappropriate text messages to each other. The LAPD was particularly pilloried for this, but I believe it cropped up in a few other jurisdictions.
Nowadays, of course, there are policies in place, but I think this is at least one case where public sector agencies were way, way ahead of the curve — it was mobile text messaging even before there was desktop instant messaging.
Likewise, we saw a similar phenomena with e-mail, as demonstrated by incriminating e-mails from United States v. Microsoft, and the Enron e-mails released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (and now used as a dataset by social scientists).
As to the why?
* The mobile bit and the social bit is still relatively new. Our social norms and mores are just starting to catch up. (At least, at the mass market level: Each niche group develops its own codes — they just have to link up in the societal Darwinian conference committee.)
* Texting is low-bandwidth in every sense, so it’s perfect for interstitial moments — asynchronous enough that you can set your own pace and not get sucked into an all-attention demanding conversation. You would think it’d give you more time to think about your words, but because it’s low-bandwidth, it’s stripped of nonverbal nuance and warning flags that might otherwise inhibit you from saying something you wouldn’t otherwise.
* It’s quasi-conversational publishing: Instantaneous enough to serve conversational purposes, but easily archived and searchable like a published document, so you have a slip of the tongue that you can find right there.
* And, of course, it’s much more viral and pervasive: It’s a lot easier to blast-forward someone’s foibles to all your friends and followers, and there are more platforms from which to do it. Contrast that with the ’80s-’90s (I keep harking back to the era, go figure) equivalent, dirty voicemail forwards, which were hard enough and exclusive enough that they wouldn’t even hit the mainstream unless a morning zoo radio program picked up on them.
Anyway, I guess the point of all this is to restate the obvious: We are, yet again, catching up to our technology, so a few trainwrecks (both literal and figurative) are pretty much inevitable.
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