by wjw on September 5, 2013

One thing that most struck me about Worldcon was how much personal interaction has become mediated, if not dominated, by social media.

I frequently found myself in a group of people who were looking at email, checking their twitter feed, browsing Facebook, and sharing cute cat pictures and amusing Youtube videos, all while trying to maintain face-to-face contact at the same time.

It seems that the conversational paradigm has shifted, and not for the better.

Do you know why I hang with my friends?  For the conversation.  I can do Facebook and email at home.  I don’t need to travel a thousand miles to a convention in order to catch up on the latest cute cat pictures.  But the constant checking of social media has become so habitual that it goes on more or less continually, a weird nervous tic, just as fifty years ago people lit up cigarettes in order to have something to do with their hands. And when the consumers get their fix, their cute cat picture, it becomes much more interesting and immediate than the person actually in the room with them.  They’ve been trained by their devices to focus their intention on the screen.  (It’s a good thing that an automobile windshield looks like a television screen, because otherwise they’d be running over people all the time.)

Good Lord, I can’t be that boring, can I?  To have person after person abandon conversation in order to re-tweet something?

I was on a panel about consensual reality at the convention, but at that point it hadn’t sunk in, and I didn’t mention the phenomenon of people carrying on two conversations at the same time, one in person, one online.  I wonder how many people in the audience were keeping an eye on their smartphones, just in case something arrived that was more entertaining than we were.

I see it in my own life.  I don’t see my friends as often as I used to, because they’re all reachable online.  I interact with the actual world less, because so much of it reaches me via electronic media. I don’t go out to movies much, because Netflix is right there, streaming 24/7.

Maybe I should learn to Skype, just to talk to my friends.


DensityDuck September 5, 2013 at 7:31 am

I can’t believe you didn’t mention the sex scene in Aristoi.

mearsk September 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm

I sometimes go to a local bar for trivia night with friends of mine that are in their mid to late twenties. It makes me want to start smashing cell phones because they are constantly on them. Smartphones are the death of conversation, I think.

SpacemanFry September 5, 2013 at 4:13 pm

I think you may appreciate this short film 🙂

This kind of thing is really annoying to me as I grew up being taught that not giving someone full attention in a conversation, or talking on the phone at dinner etc, was just extremely rude and ill-mannered.

mearsk September 5, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Sorry to post twice in a row, but I saw this today and thought it appropriate.

TRX September 5, 2013 at 7:44 pm

I’ve been seeing this for years… but it was just cellular phones, to start with. I guess at 53 I have a different social context than current society, but if I’m talking to someone and they answer their phone, start talking to it, and five minutes later they’re *still* talking to it, I assume they’re finished talking with me and walk away. For some reason, they think this is rude.

I mean, I can make allowances for “Yes, honey, I’ll be home shortly”, or “the reset switch is in the back”, or “so take her to the doctor then”, but five minutes of “yeah, uhuh, yeah” tells me they’re no longer interested in what I’m saying. And I have better things to do than stand around like a third wheel.

Corollary: in the middle of a phone call and they suddenly put you on hold. Ten minutes later, I’m still on hold.

And, as always, the people who never, ever answer their phone, but expect everyone else to answer when it’s convenient for them to call back.

Oz September 5, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Well, I might have texting on my phone, but no twitter, no FB, no email, no cute cat photos. And as I remember, we had some nice conversations. At least, from my perspective.


wjw September 6, 2013 at 4:17 am

We had nice conversations, Oz. I don’t remember you texting.

There was one group of six or eight people that was so absorbed in their phones and tablets that I got up and left, and nobody noticed. But then there hadn’t been any conversation for some time.

William Hertling September 6, 2013 at 5:19 am

Similar problem, different context: Edward Tufte talks about how people get easily distracted (and always has), and his solution to this at talks and presentations is to provide a handout that contains the same information he’s talking about. Then, if the audience gets distracted, they’re distracted by the same material that you’re presenting, which is better than being distracted by something else.

That’s a one-to-many context. For the one-to-one context, one solution is to simply wait for the other person’s attention to return to you. When I’m with my much younger sibling, for example, I expect that he’ll be distracted by text messages and other interrupts frequently. I’ve chosen to just accept it, even though I know that frustrates most folks.

It’s less clear for what you do in a many-to-many context to avoid people checking out. In a work meeting situation, one trick to engage folks is to design activities that require active participation. What do you do for a social situation?

Pat Cadigan September 6, 2013 at 5:51 am

I’ve always done,y homework in front of the TV.

I also write in front of the TV.

Now I like to take photos of my friends and put them online. But I’m always listening and paying attention.

TRX September 6, 2013 at 11:55 am

> In a work meeting situation, one trick to engage folks is to design
> activities that require active participation.

Yegodz. I thought it was only one particularly annoying former manager that did that… I didn’t realize it was widespread.

I’m here. I’m listening. I’m not going to play “Simon Says” because someone is afraid they’re not getting enough attention.

That’s even worse than “even though we’ve covered everything on the agenda, we still have to sit here for another twenty minutes because that’s how long we’re scheduled to use the conference room.”

Michael Grosberg September 6, 2013 at 12:07 pm

I recently bought a new phone. My old one was a Sony, my new one a Samsung. Both were Android smartphones with exactly the same social/communicsation apps. But my experience with the new phone, in its default setting, was completely different. I was the same. The phone itself seemed to be more demanding of my attention. It was constantly announcing new messages and updates. The Sony had very muted sounds, easy to ignore. Most actions – new email – didn’t even make a sound, only a small icon you’d notice the next time you opened it, or a small blinking led. The samsung didn’t even have any minimalistic sounds – they were all intrusive and annoying. It was as if the phone (or whoever designed it) wanted me to continually check things, and for the first few days, I did. I had to invest some time in “taming” it to make it my servant instead of my master – find less intrusive alert sounds, turn off voice notifications for almost anything. Now I’m back to the old me.
I don’t know what to do about it – there is commercial pressure from the makers of the apps and the phones to perpetuate this kind of behavior. I saw a public campaign some guy started on facebook to “keep your phone face down” in social situations. Persoinally I don’t even take it out of my pocket,

Karen Anderson September 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm

I was on staff at Workdcon and had a colleague who texted me with trivial updates on his location every 5 minutes! On the other hand, I was relieved to see very little device distraction at the panels I was on.
Texting may suck, but there wasn’t a single cell-phone ringtone interruption during the panels. Apparently people have, at least, learned to turn off their ringers.
One final device note: At the Sunday night Steampunk dance the vocalist for the jazz group Postmodern Jukebox borrowed a smartphone, accessed a text-message exchange, and sang it as a torch song. It was surprisingly dramatic!

Rosie September 6, 2013 at 2:19 pm

I think sometimes people do this to cover the fact that they can think of nothing to say to you. They’re the ones that are boring or haven’t learned how to find a new topic of mutual interest. Years ago, when I was an anthropology grad student, Margaret Mead walked into a room of us grad students at a party. None of us could manage to say anything more than “hello” because we were so in awe. Whatever we said had to be brilliant. Conversation died. She got bored and left.

Mike Substelny September 6, 2013 at 2:20 pm

World Con is one of those special cases. We want to shout to our friends back home: “Neener-neener-neener! I’m at World Con talking to Walter Jon Williams and you’re not!”

Personally I do it with selfies to prove I was there.


Dave Bishop September 8, 2013 at 5:14 pm

My social circle, here in the UK, are a bunch of old fogeys of a similar age to me. We all possess mobile phones but they don’t seem to intrude much. But mobiles are intrusive on public transport. I don’t drive these days – so use buses a lot (I’m old enough to have a bus pass – which means that I travel for free). There seems to be, these days, a particular type of fellow passenger who I call a “sit-behind-you” (SBY). I get on the bus and ascend to the upper deck – which is often, mid-afternoon, empty. At the next stop a man ascends the stairs (it’s usually a man) and although he has the whole deck to choose from, he chooses to sit in the seat behind me (!). He then proceed to fart, belch, hum to himself and, invariably, to shout very loudly into his mobile phone . Insufferable!

TRX September 12, 2013 at 6:43 pm

That guy is everywhere. He’s the one who will park 1/2 inch away from your car, when you’re parked 50 yards away from any other car. Or the one who will stand next to you and bump elbows when you’re trying to use the end of a long row of urinals. Or sits at the next table in an otherwise-empty restaurant, loudly demonstrating his lack of table manners.

Why, yes, I *am* getting crotchety in my advancing years…

Oz September 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm

I was texting to the kid up in our room, on occasion. One of the necessary evils of being there as a single parent is being available to them.

Nice to know that didn’t really figure into your sense of social media evil.

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