friendship zero

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What follows is a light-hearted parody of Ed Vielmetti's suddenly-popular "Twitter Zero" post, followed by some commentary of my own.

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Disclaimer: I love my friends - I love being in the flow of the world with the comments of friends around the world triggering all sorts of warm feelings and thoughts about how lucky I am to know so many people in so many places.

For that very same reason, I'm working towards getting rid of my friends, my "friendship zero" project, where I stop being friends with everyone I know.

It's nothing personal.

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Friendship Zero is inspired by a few other "zero" projects, including Ed Vielmetti's "Twitter Zero," Merlin Mann's "Inbox Zero" and Alan Gutierrez's "Reader Zero". The basic idea is that in systems where there is an infinite capacity for the world to send messages to get your attention, the only reasonable queue that you can leave between visits to the system is zero, because if you get behind you will never, ever, ever catch up gradually. Never. No matter how much time you put into it, there will always be more to do, and you will lose sleep over it.

What's that you say, you love your friends, why make them go away? For the same reason that I love my family (really I do) and I don't let any of them visit my house. And I love my colleagues (really I do) and spend too much of my time ignoring them.

I can't keep up. No one can keep up, actually - we look at someone shiny and say "ooh shiny" and start being friends with them because they were shiny then (and shiny once) and then suddenly you look back a week later and note to self "hm, not shiny any more, but it's a lot harder to stop paying attention to them once you're connected to them".

So, go to zero. Stop making friends, don't let them interrupt you any more. But still listen.

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Friends are great for ambient awareness of things around your neighborhood, perfect actually. With a few phone calls or conversations you can see at a glance when there are parties, what television shows they're watching, who's winning what football games, when the Mormon Church is having a global conference, Girl's Night Out, you name it there's some super-cool local event that you can tap into without having much more than a few friends.

Friend friend friend friend...

I'll argue for the sake of arguing that we as human beings have a finite supply of attention for ambient awareness of friends around the world; there's only so many neurons that can fire in one moment to keep track of what's happening, and my poor aging brain has some finite ability to keep track. You make tradeoffs, you have to. And the fact that I know just a little bit too much about popular television due to my friends has to be responsible for some other deficit in my life, like not getting quite enough sleep, or not cleaning the garage (or even more to the point noticing that there are parts of it that need attention).

Or paying attention to my boys. They are little. They won't be little forever. They don't have friends, yet - yet? - though the older one was asking about connections between the kids in his class.

Attention is a precious resource. Friends are a distraction. Family is a distraction. Work is a distraction. Pretty much everyone is a distraction in the real world, either designed to capture an eyeball or rewire a neuron or to short circuit the brain to wallet function. And sometimes the only reasonable response to a thoroughly enjoyable distraction is to make a very visible, very annoying, very painful decision to skip this particular distraction and move on.
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I could go on, but you get the idea.

Why this particular post of Ed's is getting so much attention is beyond me. It's the kind of silly generalization that I think of as essentially curmudgeonly. It's a dismissal of an entire ecosystem because you haven't found a way to make it work well for yourself.

Here's the thing--Twitter doesn't have to be a time suck that distracts you from the things that really matter. It can be a tiny investment of time that instead connects you more deeply to the people you love who don't happen to live in your house. The choice doesn't have to be between overload and nothing. That's a false dichotomy. It's about learning how to live a balanced and healthy life both online and off.

With email, with blogs, with Twitter, with games, with real-life friendship, we have choices to make. We can choose to use them, or to let them use us. We can lose sleep over the things we missed, or we can focus instead on the things we see.

I was telling danah the other day about how I use my delicious inbox. It's my start page in Firefox, and when I launch my browser I glance at the items on the first page. Often there are interesting, useful, important things there, and it's the launch for a brief morning exploration. I miss a lot of things that people in my network bookmark because they're not on the first page, and that's totally okay. I don't lose sleep over the ones I didn't see. Instead, I'm grateful for the ones I do, since they keep me in touch with the zeitgeist of the technical world I'm most interested in. (And, in fact, that's how I saw the Twitter Zero post to begin with.)

I do the same thing with Twitter. My twitter page is the default page in my mobile phone browser. The number of people I follow is under 100, and I seldom page back through old tweets. I pop in to see what's at the top of the stack, I occasionally go to a close friend's feed to see what they're up to, but again I don't really worry at all about what I missed. I tap in for some of what Clive Thompson so beautifully termed "social propriception," I post an update or two of my own, and I move on.

Ed's post reads a bit to me like how an alcoholic might write about alcohol. "Admitted I was powerless over social media and my life had become unmanageable." Yes, there are obviously people who can't effectively manage their use of these tools and integrate them into a rich and full life. But it's important to remember that some people really can have just one glass of wine, too.

1 Comment

I completely agree.
Google Reader's my homepage, and somehow I've accumulated 60+ feeds on there, way more than I could ever hope to read (there's 280 unread items right now, and probably more since I started writing). The one rule I've made for myself is not to care if I don't read something. There are a few that I at least look at (almost) everything to see if it's worth reading, but only the ones I really care about.

The same goes for Twitter too. I use TweetDeck as a client, and it's broken into 3 columns: all messages on the left, @ replies to me in the center, and the right column is a few people (no more than 10) that I'm really interested in what they have to say. Pop it open, see if there's anything new in the 2 right columns, skim the left, close it, go on my merry.

"Social media" is about providing an enhancement to your interactions, your knowledge, and your life in general. When it ceases to be that and becomes a burden, the problem is not with the medium, the problem lies in the consumer.

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on October 23, 2008 7:14 PM.

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