Friday, March 11, 2011

A short burst of inconsequential information

“… [W]e came across the word ‘twitter,’ and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds.’ And that’s exactly what the product was.”—Jack Dorsey[1]

While I was getting my hair cut at Great Clips yesterday, I listened as the customer next to me regaled his stylist with the tale of a close call he had on the freeway. I’m sure other people across the nation know this one: the young person in the car in the next lane was too busy texting someone to realize her car was drifting into his lane. When he brought her into the present by leaning on his horn, she flashed him a dirty look—of course it was his fault.

Then, later that night, as I was scanning through the secular news, I came across an AP story on MSNBC: An employee of New Media Strategies in Detroit, apparently running into his own frustrations with traffic, tweeted: “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f***ing drive.”

It would have been much funnier if he hadn’t posted it to Chrysler Group’s official Twitter site by mistake. Now he’s unemployed and Chrysler is letting NMS go at the end of their contract. Oops.

How did we all get addicted to texting and tweeting? How could it have gained such a hold on Joe Schmuckatelli that he would risk playing bumper cars on the interstate just to zap a semi-witty observation to what he thought were his peeps but turned out to be his boss’ biggest client?

But let’s look a little bit closer at social networking: Although businesses are trying in various ways to take advantage of it—if they could, they’d find a way to put their advertising in your dreams—the vast majority of tweets, status updates and texts revolve around “short bursts of inconsequential information” from individuals to individuals. The internet, born of the need to share business- and government-critical data, now is as much a home to small talk and chit-chat.

The problem is not the inconsequential nature of the transactions. In fact, it’s almost the opposite, since this kind of chatter is the kind of talk that should be occurring around the dinner table at a friend’s or relative’s house regularly but isn’t. It should be happening in kitchens between husbands and wives over coffee after the kids are put to bed, not on iPhones and notebook computers anywhere from twenty to 2,000 miles apart from each other.

Prior to World War II, it was common to find whole communities of people who had never lived anywhere else, where men married women they grew up or went to school with or met in the next town over, where teachers had not only taught your siblings but also your cousins and quite often your parents, where whole dynasties lived within blocks or a few miles of each other. You also found this sort of thing in ethnic communities within larger cities; my uncle used to say that our family, the Cronins, were related to half the Irish Catholics in North Omaha.

In a recent post in The Distributist Review, Ryan Grant argues that the decline of the Roman Empire had really started with the destruction of the Italian family farm in the late Republic years between 120 and 80 BC, and the resultant shift to conglomerate latifundia farming, which originally appeared on the Italian mainland and was later “outsourced” to the colonies. We can see an equally devastating shift today on the commercial and industrial side of the economy with the transfer of production and trade from local shops to national and multinational corporations, not to mention the shift in our own economy to corporate farming.

The economy that supported such solid local networks of primary relationships has mostly disappeared. Many children don’t graduate from high school in the same school system in which they entered kindergarten. Cousins grow up barely knowing each other, seeing each other every two or three Christmases. Childhood friendships gave way to nights out with coworkers at a local bar; family get-togethers were replaced by family reunions.

The cost isn’t just measured in terms of nostalgia. Rather, the loss of the extended family and network of friendships has a cost in support for marriages and childrearing, as well as in increasing anomie. Surface indicators of a higher quality of living, measuring only in material goods, are offset by indicators of other dystopian measures—higher suicide rates, higher divorce rates, declining birth rates and increasing reliance on government programs to alleviate poverty (bread and circuses, anyone?).

For years, the inconsequential chit-chat that forms the everyday bond of primary relationships was stunted by the costs of long-distance phone calls even as children were losing the art and discipline of letter-writing. Now we can make small talk again, to a degree.

But as our hapless friend from New Media Strategies found out, it’s not the same as having a beer with your buddies. Or eating spaghetti with your family at Aunt Teresa’s.

Social networking applications such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the like represent a patch—not as a defective computer program but as a ship whose hull integrity is compromised by a hole. For all their elegance and usefulness, they’re essentially jury-rigged fixes that will only hold for so long until the structural damage is repaired … or the ship sinks.

We need to rebuild not just the nuclear family but the extended family as well. People depend on primary relationships for their sense of place, for that sense of home that goes beyond the four walls of a house and of hometown that means more than the city you grew up in. It’s the difference between mere genealogy and real human roots … roots that don’t take much transplanting.

[1] David Sarno, Twitter creator Jack Dorsey illuminates the site's founding document. Part I”, Los Angeles Times, 2/18/09, retrieved 3/18/11.