Monday, May 14, 2007

Antisocial Software and Asynchronous Communication

I was reading some hyperbolic omniborous blog the other day where the blogger gushed about how he'd been helped with some technical task or other because he could contact yet another blogger and get immediate help. It's this social software, we're always told, that can get us the help we need.

I guess I'm not impressed, for a number of reasons. First, I don't need any help. Rarely do I encounter any problems that I can't solve myself, so I don't need any social software to call up someone in an emergency. In fact, what I prefer is antisocial software.

You might just say I'm selfish, and of course you'd be right. But AL, we know you can solve all your own problems, but what about your colleagues? Don't you have an obligation to be there for them? Yes and no. I have an obligation to be there for them in my professional capacity, but I don't have any obligation to be there for them to solve all their technical problems or teach them how to use software or any number of other things people might bother me about. These relationships have to be mutual to be fair, and they're never mutual. It's always other people asking for my help, not the other way around. It's like I'm living in a society of free riders.

There are other reasons I don't want to be easily contacted by hapless librarians in need. I don't like IM much, for example, because it gives people instant access to my time, and I can think of very few people who deserve that instant access. (Actually, I can think of three, and you know who you are.) No colleagues qua colleagues deserve instant access to my time.

I certainly don't think I'd like Twitter, one of the applications the Omnibores are currently wetting themselves over. This from Twitter: "A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? Answer on your phone, IM, or right here on the web!" Is that supposed to excite me? I guess so. I can tell why lots of librarians are excited--just look at that exclamation mark! I don't have to answer the question through Twitter. I'll answer it right now on my own blog. What am I doing? None of your damn business, that's what I'm doing.

The problem with some, but not all, so-called social software is that people bother you with it. I suppose there are some insecure folks out there who desperately want people to contact them so that they feel they have a reason to exist. "Look! Someone's IMing me! I must be worthwhile! I want to share my thoughts and feelings!"

But lots of normal people don't like the hegemony over their time that technology gives other people. Some people get excited when the phone rings, or an email or IM pops up. I don't. I haven't answered my home phone in years. I don't even like to answer my office phone, which is why I screen the calls and only answer if I think the call won't be annoying.

The problem isn't one of communication. I communicate all the time. The problem is the assumption that whenever someone else wants me for something, I'm supposed to stop whatever I'm doing for them, even if what they want isn't very important, and it rarely is. Email is a nice civilized communication tool that lets people respond at their own convenience, which in my case is promptly if the email requires promptness. But IM, like the phone, is a communication device that implies the initiator of the communication is more important than the recipient, or at least that her time is more important.

Unless there's some sort of emergency, your time is not more important to me than my time. I should hope you'd feel the same way. (About your time being important to you, I mean. You might feel that my time is more important than yours, and you might be right, but I wouldn't expect it of you.) I will resist any technology or trend that gives other people control over my time. It's a simple time management tool.

I guess I've been mischaracterizing the problem. The problem isn't really one of social or antisocial, and it isn't limited to software. For me, it's a matter of synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous communication tools give control to the needy, while asynchronous communication tools give the control to the needed. Just as your crisis doesn't translate into my problem, your need doesn't translate into my dropping everything to satisfy you. I have to manage my time to work effectively, not let someone else manage my time.

Any "social software" that allows me to communicate effectively with others while allowing both of us to retain control over our time is good. Any synchronous communication tool that allows people to track me down and instantly bother me is bad. Being "connected" is only a good thing is you want to be connected and if it benefits you. Being connected is a bad thing if it's always other people want you to be connected for their benefit, not your own. Some of the people who gush about social technology should remember that not everyone wants to be connected to them, and for a good reason.


Anonymous said...

And that's exactly why I prefer cellphones to normal phones--whenever I want some peace, I just switch it off.

Brent said...

I understand this issue.

I went to a restaurant with a group of friends. The girl I was dating at the time said she wanted to go downtown and I said no. I wanted to see my friends. Suffice it to say, I go to this restaurant and I get a call on my cell phone. I look at it and see it is her. I don't answer. Get another call, look at it again, and don't answer. Friends ask who it is, and I said it doesn't matter. Well, it turned out she was at the restaurant and saw me. That wasn't pretty. I keep my cell phone on silent unless I am at home, from then on.

As for IM, I have it on a lot. Most of the time I am not there. But, I use Pidgin and it makes it easy to say you are away and still type to who you want. It is like caller ID.

I agree it isn't being anti-social, it is being sociably responsible.

Dances With Books said...

Brent has a nice label for it: being socially responsible. Why the hell do I need to know when you are going to the bathroom, getting the upteenth cup of overpriced coffee at Starbucks, or who knows what else? There is a reason "twit" goes in the word "TWITter." And that just makes me question even more the judgment of the Omnibores who seem to be wetting themselves over it (actually, I think they may be doing more than wetting themselves, but I shall refrain adding details as I know this is a family friendly zone).

Like you, AL, I pretty much don't answer the phone at home. I screen the calls. As for my cell, the only people who have the number are family. As you point out, my time is exactly that, mine, and what I may be doing in my time is none of anybody's business. Besides, do people really want to know I was doing number two in the loo? (sorry, could not resist).

Of course, if the Omnibores who are overly excited of 2.0 had their way, I can see it now: a future of library users twittering away, letting us now which porn sites they are visiting while in the library. May the deity of your choice help you then.

Anonymous said...

I am a beta user of a new service called "antipathgen." It collects all your e-mail, voice mail, cell texts, IMs, etc.--all of it--and prints it out. The printouts are in turn mailed to you every few days along with a coupon for a free drink at a local bar. You can then read your messages at your leisure, with a drink of your choice. The service also provides propitious-sounding reasons for your decidedly Luddite approach, e.g., "This user appears to be in a remote area outside the United States" or "This user appears to be on an airplane without Wi-Fi access." The responses rotate so that even the most peristent pant wetter simply thinks you have "no personal bandwidth" when in reality you have tons.


Nathan said...

You have no idea how this post decimated my self-esteem.

Anonymous said...

I happen to agree that telecommunications/social networking technology can be intrusive; however, only if you let it. It's a simple matter not to answer your telephone or turn on your IM program. It beats the neighbor dropping by for a cup of sugar---that you cannot turn off.

Too, it's quite the broad, therefore meaningless, statement to attribute to those who use IM and other such technologies a sort of existential as well as practical weakness. Just because there are people who are not technologically omniscient doesn't mean they're losers.


AL said...

Yes, but if I put things in a qualified and thoroughly reasoned way, taking into consideration all the possible nuances and counterarguments, then it wouldn't be as much fun.

Anonymous said...

I certainly don't IM. When I discovered several years ago that IMers don't communicate in paragraphs -- and often not even in sentences -- I lost any interest in it. I also have more pride in my communication than to let the typos flow out into the ether the way IMing encourages.

Don't get me started on phones. I have lots of people sit here in my office, engaged in conversation with me, who stare incredulously when I don't pick up my ringing phone. Isn't that what voice mail is for? Why should a phoner automatically be more important that someone sitting four feet from me. How rude! Go wait in line.


contrarian said...

I agree with Kurt. It really annoys me when I'm in someone's office talking and that person interrupts us by answering a ringing phone. This happens so often. Face-to-face "customers" who were there first should have priority. If someone is in my office talking and my phone rings, I let the caller go to voicemail. What's really ridiculous is when my co-workers are talking in my office, hear their phone ring in their office, and run like mad to get the call.

isabella mori said...

like you, i am a great friend of asynchronicity (and always annoy my family when i don't answer the phone - heck, that's why we have an answering machine!) i only use twitter in its web app, and look at it only when i feel like it and have the time. also, i only have twitter friends who contribute twits that interest me. most of this online social networking stuff - you can make it work for you!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of communication, AL, here's some good news regarding Scott Hughes: The ex-Director of the Trenton (NJ) Public Library is now the City Librarian of the Bridgeport (CT) Public Library.

Here are two links regarding Scott's resurgence:

(For, look at page 2 to search for the name Scott A. Hughes)

Anonymous said...

I have a "friend" who calls me rude if I don't respond to her im's as fast as she thinks I should. In fact, if I pause, she will flood the im window with 20 questions or remarks on why I am not commenting back to her and call me rude. It's highly annoying. There are some people who should not be allowed to have im's.

WDL said...

I wonder if the Amish need librarians?

There seems to be a pool of them just waiting to get shipped out(via horse and buggy of course.)

While it is understandable that one wouldn't embrace EVERY form of trendy 2.0-esque technology, it creeps me out that dealing with people is so low on the list of professional librarians.

Someone once spread a rumor that loving books was key to being a librarian. That person should be scalped, I can't believe how many people fell for it.

Its no wonder stereotypes continue to blossom. It seems they are tended & watered quite well.


Dances With Books said...

To agree with a couple other commenters, I also get the weird look if I am with someone at my desk, and I don't answer the phone. Students who come to see me certainly answer their cells when they come see me. I have to say they are mostly polite, asking to be excused or simply pick up and tell the person to call back, but overall, happens. So when I let my phone ring, they wonder.

I also have to agree with WDL: it does seem dealing with actual people is low on the priorities of a lot of professional librarians.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the respondents above me (WDL and DWB, mainly) don't quite get the angle AL is putting forth, specifically about the 'low priority' of people for librarians. A kid with a research report on Guatemala is not a low priority for me. A woman who's interested in finding authors similar to Sue Grafton is not a low priority for me. Helping people at the help desk is not a low priority for me.

You know what is a low priority for me? People who approach the help desk on their cellphone, and don't bother to put it away. People who keep sending me emails throughout the day and get annoyed that I don't respond quickly enough because I'm on the help desk. People who keep 'tagging' me on Myspace, forwarding me chain letters, or otherwise wasting bandwith on utter garbage. If you consider THAT to be 'dealing with actual people', I pity the poor un-twittered fool who dares to ask your transcenently web2.0'd selves a question about where the diabetes books might be in the crude, meaty flesh of real life.

Greg said...

I answer the phone at the desk just to make it stop ringing, then I put them on hold and help the person in front of me.

I agree that dealing with people is a low priority for some librarians but I think dealing with 'actual people' is still important to a lot of us. However you're not dealing with actual people when you're texting and iming. The interaction that takes place during a face to face reference interview is simply at a higher level, much higher in fact. The human connection is what makes reference a valuable but nuanced tool. The fewer roadblocks the better.

Anonymous said...

I IM, text, take calls, e-mail, and play with other contact media/social software. But all by using the tools they provide--hiding me from those who abuse access, returning messages that have immediate need first, etc.

More than anything, though, I agree that one problem I've discovered is that I often help friends/colleagues with their problems--rewriting(recreating) articles, answering their questions, doing their work. But it's never (ok, extraordinarily rarely) returned. So now I know about and still use all these tools, but know how to hide from those who just want to use me as a crutch.

WDL said...

Social software in a "socializing" situation is different than when it is being used as a tool.

We use Meebo at our library, and participate in Ask A Librarian - which is pure IM.

This customer deserves just as much time as the person in front of me, or the person on the phone.

If someone is calling me for help, they are coming to me for a reason - they know I can help.

There is the internal and external customer - and I am paid to assist both, not the ones I want to help.

It is true, as AL has intimated, that it can be a bothersome bore. I have work that needs to be done. Like right now - and a co-worker just came over and asked me what mouse I was using, and flipped it over while I was typing this to get the model number on it.

Moral of this: People first. No matter how they approach me.

I'm sure all the Ning and MySpace and Friendster and Facebook stuff can be annoying - but that isn't really what AL was getting at.

The constant barrage of information request is part of our job - what is needed: for us to share this thought with those co-workers who are in violation - "please make an appointment", "I'm busy right now, and will help you later" and "I can't stop working on this project right now". They can't read our minds, and are too slow to understand how rude they are.

Customers, on the other hand, well, frankly, they are just part of the job.

At least that is my opinion. And I am unanimous.


Anonymous said...

Maybe we should all discuss this matter in a civil manner and in a welcoming environment: Second Life.

Anonymous said...

Where are you AL? Are you working? I need to read something that resonates with cynicism so I can deal with my hyperbolic omnibore of a boss. C’mon, make me laugh. I guess I’ll have to settle for until you are back.

Bunny Watson said...

Anonymous @ 2:45 - do any of the SL avatars have library bottoms? I won't join if they don't.

Anonymous said...


In SL one's avatar can have anything she wants, including a wide bottom.

Anonymous said...

I am making my resignation known. I hereby before all the AL world resign my duties as a Librarian.

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that the techno-utopian Librarians that are hyping social software, can't stand *anyone* even gently questioning them. Any article or blog post that criticizes the over-hyping is pooh-poohed. "They just don't get it," sighs the techno-utopian.