Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The anti-social network :(

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Have we become a nation of flakes and liars, thanks to the invention of text messages and Facebook 

Text junkie: it’s rare for people to phone each other now

I recently conducted a social experiment and gave up my compulsive texting habit for a while. Instead, I had to pick up the telephone and actually ring people. It had a curious effect. Most people answered in a panic, assuming that I’d only make a phone call if it was to announce big news, such as a death, birth or imminent appearance on Big Brother. They were baffled by the truth – that I just wanted to know if they fancied a drink, and that I expected a definite answer as to where and when it would take place.
What I was encountering was people in the grip of the new sociological phenomenon of “micro co‑ordination”, as Professor Richard Ling at the IT University of Copenhagen has dubbed it. This is the idea that smartphones have revolutionised how we communicate, allowing us to make fluid and quickly changeable arrangements digitally. Gone are the days when we made plans verbally and stuck to them. Is this a good thing, though, or has it turned us into a bunch of liars and flakes?
This week, the text message is celebrating its 20th birthday. But cast your mind back to a time before smartphones. You couldn’t text a last-minute apology: “Aargh got flu, in bed, c u soon”, and settle down with a glass of wine to watch Strictly Come Dancing instead. You couldn’t email: “Meeting overrunning – can’t make lunch”, when you’d received a more appealing offer.
So ubiquitous has this fluid behaviour become that the old lie “the cheque’s in the post” has been replaced by “sry cant make it, spk soon x”. And if you wish to opt out of these new social mores, you haven’t a hope. As Prof Ling makes clear in his recent book, Taken for Grantedness: The Embedding of Mobile Communication into Society, we are all governed by the new behaviour.
“Everybody takes it for granted that we are constantly available on [mobiles],” says Ling. “So you are effectively coerced into this kind of communication… We used to structure our plans around time and location when organising our social life. Now we just use our phones, which enables us to change and manipulate what we do.

“We might have three or four different things going on at once, and one thing might fall apart, or another thing might come through, so there’s a basic indeterminacy that we live with.”

Ling thinks it’s a positive thing, but undoubtedly this new social conduct has downsides.

“Technology magnifies our behaviour,” says Jodi R R Smith, president of the etiquette firm Mannersmith. “People with good manners still have good manners, but those with bad manners now have glaringly bad manners. So a polite girl who is running late can text her friends to say that she is on her way, and a rude girl who has received a better offer can text her date to cancel without having to face – or speak to – him.”

And the very technology that enables our micro co-ordination – or digital flakiness – can all too easily catch us out. Philippa, a freelance PR, recalls a mortifying example of a white lie backfiring. “I had a contact who helped me a lot but whom I’d always been too lazy to meet in person. He befriended me on Facebook and asked if we could finally meet,” she says. “I wanted to hang out with my friends on the occasion that he suggested, so I lied and said I was out of town. Unfortunately, my friend took pictures of our kids playing and tagged me in them on Facebook. The contact saw the picture and wrote: 'Still in town I see.’ It was highly embarrassing.”

Anna Fenton, a new mother, had a similarly discomforting experience at the hands of a flakey friend who had promised to visit Anna in hospital as soon as her baby was born. “It turned out that she was going to be too busy to make it,” Anna says. “But then I saw a conversation on Facebook about her coming to the area [that day] to meet a pal for lunch. She was agog with excitement and made it sound like one of the highlights of her year. We haven’t spoken since.”

The problem stretches beyond casual meetings, too, as Maggie, a 21-year-old student, found when she went to Newcastle University and embarked on a new relationship. “There was a girl who was always posting really weird personal stuff on my boyfriend’s Facebook page, like 'duvet thief’,” she tells me. “When I confronted him about it, he went mad and said he couldn’t deal with another paranoid girlfriend, so I ignored it. But I couldn’t trust him and I finished it. Later I found out that he had actually been going out with the girl all along – they even lived together.”

So mobile communication is fraught with pitfalls. We have to make certain that we are covering our backs and not exposing ourselves and our unreliability online, which may be more trouble than it’s worth.

“I think people actually have to be more accountable,” says chartered psychologist Dr Alastair Ross. “In the old days, you could just disappear for an hour or two. Now, if you’re going to be 10 minutes late, you are expected to text to say that you are en route. If you do cancel, you have to watch that you don’t contradict yourself on Twitter or that Skype doesn’t give you away.” Perhaps we’re better off giving up texting for good.

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