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.