19 December 2011

♫...The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk...♫

In the late-ish 90s I was doing my A Levels for the bazillionth time (ever indecisive I couldn't just pick a subject and stick with it. I kept changing my mind, quitting that subject, and starting something different the following September). Text messaging was the new cool thing and I loved it. Struggling to understand what people are saying when I can't see their lips move meant that mobile telephony was difficult: When you're having a conversation with someone and you're both in the relatively background noise-free environments of your home it's fine, but roaming communication meant people would phone from the pub while you were in the supermarket and the background cacophony drowns out any hope of following the other person's words. But texting... No hearing necessary: Communication on the go without me constantly shrieking "you what?"

The minute someone taught me how to send a text I was in love with the technology. I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Well, greater really: Slicing bread yourself isn't all that hard. It's certainly easier than decoding a drunk friend's speech at 3am when you've got APD.

My A Level theatre studies teacher was not a convert. She decried that such short, swift, exchanges would be the death of human communication. I, obviously, scoffed. How could such a wonderful idea opening communicative doors possibly be a bad thing?

I'm starting think that she might have been right.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of texting, tweeting and Facebooking. Two weeks ago I was in a meeting and the chair tried to avoid using the word "twitter" because he knew I'd start proselytising. Again. But such speedy exchanges have altered the way we interact with each other and I'm starting to pine for the days when people were reliable.

I should say at this juncture that - yes - I know this post makes me a massive hypocrite. I'm well aware that I'm just as flaky as everybody else these days. I'm just as susceptible to life zooming past me as everybody else on the planet. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Everything being so immediate has its drawbacks as well as its merits. I like that I can tweet about a ludicrous conversation with a salesperson and have that company's customer services get in touch with me within a couple of hours because my tweet spread like wildfire. When I'm so ill that I can barely remember my own name I like that I can post one word answers to a question on Facebook without feeling a cultural obligation to ask "and how are the kids? Did your dog recover OK from getting his knackers whipped off?" (That last question especially doesn't go down well with someone who doesn't have a dog and you've just conflated them with someone else.)

I hate that not replying to people has become acceptable because it's just the norm now. With a few exceptions I've learned that if I haven't had an Email back from someone within about 6 hours of me sending then I'm not going to get a reply at all. Most notable exception was in May 2011 when I got a reply to an Email I sent in Dec 2008, but most people don't trawl through 2.5 year old Emails.

I think Twitter and Facebook have a large part to play in creating this environment of immediacy. I think we all follow/are friends with more people than more people than we realistically can keep up with. I don't get to see every tweet from every person in my twitter timeline any more because there's just too many tweets. I'd love to have a cull, or at least to stop feeling compelled to add more people, but there are just too many fucking awesome people on twitter that I just can't not follow. Even if it does mean I miss quite a few tweets from everybody because I just can't keep up: Keeping up with a fair few tweets of 198 people somehow seems more acceptable than only following, say, 100 awesome people but getting to see all their posts. Because I get an extra 98 people's worth of awesomeness, even if it's only intermittent awesomeness.

But this blasé attitude has spread beyond twitter into the rest of our lives. We check our Email and we deal with the really urgent stuff and leave the rest "until later". Except with us all being so in the present these days "later" never comes. The next time we check our Email we, once again, deal with the pressing matters while the "till later" stuff gets shunned to page 2 of your inbox and ends up forgotten entirely.

Blogging is much the same. It used to be the case that I'd read all the blog posts in my RSS feed reader. But now I, like everyone else, only read something if I happen to be online when it's posted because we're so present-focussed we don't scroll down any more. Seven years ago your latest blog post would get just as many hits if you posted it at 11pm on a Saturday as it would if you posted it at 11am on a Monday. Even if the hits didn't come in until Monday morning, the post would still ultimately get read. This is no longer the case. I find myself more and more advance-scheduling tweets and blog posts to be published at time when I know the internet will be busy.

All this means that we tend to keep repeating ourselves. When we write a blog post most people won't just tweet the link once and leave it; they'll keep on posting at different times of day to attract an audience. If you send someone an Email and they don't reply you're faced with the choice of having to either just forget about it or chasing them up. I really hate both of these things.

I can get really paranoid about being annoying. Most of the time I'm fine with it: My high-pitched voice, rapid speech, and opinionatedness do not endear me to the masses. Usually it's my conclusion that they're arseholes for not wanting to listen to me. But sometimes, when I need someone's help, I can't just say "oh, fuck it. I won't chase them up." And when I have to chase someone up I become acutely aware of how annoying I am.

(I should be clear that this isn't a self-loathing thing and other people find me not at all annoying; quite the opposite. I had no problem with being annoying until other people told me how grating I was. And they've told me that in great numbers.)

Welfare reform is currently making me crazy. Actually properly crazy. But I refuse to give up fighting just yet because I would actually like some kind of future. I know we've only got a few weeks left before my fate is doomed, but until that time I can't not fight.

This need to fight while extra crazy is just making my neuroses worse. If I Email someone who has got the capacity to be of some use in the fight against welfare reform but I don't get a reply, what should I do? Well, obviously, I should chase them up. My Email's probably fallen to page 5 of their inbox by now and is never going to get a response unless I do. But I really wish they'd reply of their own volition and save me the time spent sat in the bathroom, in the dark, rocking back and forth repeating "oh God, I'm a terrible person. Oh God, I'm so annoying. Why do I have to be such an awful person? Oh God I'm such a bad person. I wish I wasn't so annoying."

And as for repeatedly tweeting the same thing over and over just to get the message out to people who happen to be online at different times of the day: It'd be interesting to do an experiment to see if people found it easier to keep up with all the people they follow if it wasn't the norm for everyone to post the same thing several times. I don't need The Huffington Post to tweet the link to the same article 3 times in as many hours, and if they didn't then perhaps I might have caught the tweet in which a friend was having a crisis.

My main problem with repeatedly tweeting the same content is, again, that I can't do it because it sends me into mini-meltdown about being too annoying. I have few enough followers as it is without boring the few I've got into abandoning me because I just post the same shit again and again. And giving someone an @ message requesting a retweet is another behaviour that'll make me weep with guilt if I try it.

I'm a big fan of the technology that allows us to communicate so instantaneously. I love that I can have these swift non-verbal interactions with anyone anywhere in the world. Twitter and Facebook are so valuable to me as a poorly person. From May to October this year I didn't write anything longer than a tweet because I just wasn't well enough. But these short, rapid, interpersonal exchanges saved me from being completely isolated in that time. You can tweet using your iPod in bed, you can tweet from a hospital waiting room, you can even sometimes get sufficient signal in the hospital basement to send a text between x-rays. You can check Facebook while waiting for your pharmacist to dispense your vast quantities of medicines. Last week was the 3rd anniversary of my mum's death. One of the first things I did when I stopped screaming that night was to tweet the fact because I wanted support from my friends around the world.

It genuinely makes me quite sad that my old teacher turned out to be so prescient about the death of communication; or at least the death of quality communication. I'm a big fan of short, rapid exchanges you get via text or on Twitter; but did we really have to abandon "old school" replying to Emails and so on? Have we as a species become so wrapped up in our fast paced 140-160 characters world that we can't find the time in our lives to read/write anything longer? Have we become so present-orientated that we really can't reply to any Email sent more than 6 hours ago. Even if it's a really important one?

Stop this world. It's spinning too fast. I want to get off.


  1. This is a great post! Personally, I simply can't keep up with the pace at all, so I make things manageable and let those who can cope with the speed race off over the horizon. I tend to be far more optimistic about replies though, because I can be super slow myself. Six weeks isn't unusual for really important e-mails.

    Some days, I can't cope with twitter at all, but otherwise I unfollow people who repeatedly retweet things, which includes some people I really like. When I feel I haven't heard from someone or I'm concerned about someone - like when I knew it was the anniversary of your Mum dying but I'd hardly been on twitter all day - I go to the individual feed to see what's been going on.

    One thing I do miss from just a few years ago is blog comments. I think I get retweets on Twitter when previously, folk would have come over and said something - it's like giving a wave instead of engaging in conversation. I'm so afraid of doing this myself that, when I am able to comment, I comment first then retweet. So now I'm going to retweet this and maybe some people who missed it when you posted will notice it now. :-)

  2. I know what you mean, i get so much crap in my email that i hardly ever go through it properly anymore let alone then have the brain function to reply. And missing out on stuff from friends is getting a little less now facebook has made some changes but is still bad, i find myself thinking about someone and having to go check their profile cos i have absolutely no idea how they are at the moment, what they are up to etc and is why i now have your blog bookmarked on my quicklinks bookmark bar at the top of my browser so that even if i don't catch your tweets on fb (for some reason fb hardly ever shows me your tweets if it ever does, think i only see the rare actual fb posts you do not tweets) i can still quickly check into your blog to see if you've posted. *hugs* babes and if you ever feel up to escaping up to shrewsbury we'd love to see you some time (if you can come to us then we could help with petrol cost to make it more doable) and we have been talking about escaping to london for the w'end in the new year sometime as i'd love to see so many things there, and staying in the hotel with the ceiling track hoist, coming down via train as our ancient van isn't allowed in london come the new year so if we do we will try and meet up with you ok? Love to Betty, Sonia xxxxx