You sit at a desk twelve hours a day and you have nothing to show for it except some numbers that won’t exist or be remembered in a week. You’re leaving no evidence you lived. There’s no proof
Dave Eggers, The Circle
On Sunday it was my birthday. My 30th.
As tradition dictates, I received a number of cards – from some friends and my family.
I also received – in much greater quantities – social media notifications. Facebook wallposts, pokes and a tweet or two. All wishing me a happy birthday.
These came from close friends, colleagues and even friends from further afield – New York and America, Asia, Australia.
Over time, this trend has been increasing – the proportion of cards diminishing, the number of messages sent via electronic and social means is increasing. Quite importantly, the number of ‘interactions’ (defined here as any form of communication) is however and crucially, also increasing. Purely and simplistically – in terms of volume alone, I’ve never been more popular.
Now, this could be for a couple of reasons.
I’m getting older – the sheer number of people within my ‘network’ is, at least in theory, growing too – I’ve worked with more people, I’ve met more people. I’m probably becoming less of a dickhead too.
Or, it could be that the ‘weight’ (the effort) and the ‘cost’ (the difficulty) of this type of communication is decreasing. Massively. You don’t even need to remember when my birthday is – Facebook will tell you; with one click you can wish me a happy birthday. As someone like Clay Shirky has said millions and millions of times before, digital media is fundamentally altering the economics of communication. And, its getting easier – people can like, favourite or give a thumbs up. The need to even articulate sentiment or thought is dwindling, too.
I’m inclined to think it id the latter and in theory, everyone should be happy, right? People get that nice warm feeling from remembering a friends birthday. I get the satisfaction of feeling loved and thought about.
Its a situation that reminded me in many ways of Dave Eggers‘ novel The Circle which i finished recently. In the vaguely futuristic, but all too recognisable, world Eggers creates the central protagonist is measured by her employers at a Google/Facebook/Pay-Pal amalgam not by the quality of her interactions, but by the volume. How much content she posts on social networks, the number of ‘zings’ (likes, essentially), the number of surveys she fills out, the speed of her response. In The Circle it is the volume and velocity of the interactions within the network that matter, not the value.
Eggers novel is a satire. But, as with all good satire – it’s forced me to appraise the culture I live in. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the messages from my friends, but that comparatively, the quality – the intrinsic value of the messages – was not the same as old fashioned ways of communication.
As Mcluhan says – the medium is the message. The physical piece of communication acts in a number of ways. When I receive a card I consume the actual message – which in card form is much more likely to be heavily stylised and personalised than it is on social media; I consider why someone chose that specific card for me, reflecting on what it meant to them and why it reminded them of me specifically (if at all); I appreciate the ‘cost’ of the interaction – the effort of writing, attaching a stamp and walking to the postbox – in what recently has been tragic weather – gives the card implicit value.
Having discussed this with a friend, I’m going to start an experiment – The Postcard Project.
I love Postcards – I have several shoeboxes that are stuffed full of them. Whenever I go to a new city or town, I buy a handful of them. Similarly art galleries. Sometimes I spend more on a single visit to the gift shop than I have on the price of admission to the exhibition.
It’s hard to say how this habit developed. Aesthetically – they’re fascinating – each one baring an image that I find interesting, either because they are beautiful or because they are funny or because they are unusual. In spacial terms – they don’t allow you to write much but crucially, they do let you write just enough. They give you room to write a statement, to ask a question, to impart thanks or a greeting but not much more – they demand a certain economy.
The question I want to explore and answer is this: In a world increasingly dominated by lightweight, digital communications, would a distinct shift in my own behaviour back to physical, ‘High latency‘ communication (the postcard) create a difference in either my behaviour or the behaviour of others within my ‘network’?
I’ve been partly inspired by two other projects, as well as my own moment of realisation described above. Firstly, Russell Davies’ Dawdlr , a postcard based thing which relied on post to describe what someone was doing at any time. Secondly, John Willshire‘s Artefact project. John’s project started by trying to understand how ideas developed when we’ve come to rely on intrinsically worthless and ephemeral media (the post-it note) to capture and develop them with.
I want to explore a number of things.
How do people react to being communicated with in this way? Would they return the favour – replying in the same format? Would people appreciate it or just find it weird? Would they still resort to digital communication to acknowledge the message or answer a question that I’ve posed. Without a return address what would they do? Is handwritten correspondence dead?
I’m also intrigued by whether they can act as a bridge between the physical and digital worlds. Much in the same way BERGs Little Printer acts as a means of creating a bridge from the digital world of feeds and subscriptions to the physical world of lists, would a post card work in reverse? Would sending people a postcard each time I updated this blog change the way people consumed this content?
Most interestingly though – I want to know what happens if I apply some of the principles of the new digital communications model to the older communications model. What happens if I send postcards to weak ties within my network? The unusual thing about Linkedin and Twitter is that we’re happy to follow and interact with people we’ve not really met before. It’s a brilliant way of sharing information and meeting people. What if I sent a postcard to someone i’ve barely met or someone I know only through Twitter?
For all the organisations within the advertising industry, such as BBH Labs , who have been experimenting with the future and what is happening to the world when viewed through the lens of new digital technology, I want to investigate how old forms of communication function in this new world.
As I’ve said a lot – we’re often obsessed – wrongly – with the idea that old technology is killed off by new technology. I don’t think that old means of communication are any less valuable today, but their meaning, purpose and role is changing. I want to understand what this role and purpose is.