It's Not The Future Anymore
Visions of Communication

Online Life

During that splendid dinner at Aria, the woman sitting next to me asked, "But how does it feel to expose so much of yourself on your blog, and know that you're sharing all of that with hundreds of people that you don't know?"  It's the kind of question that pops up periodically when bloggers get self-reflective.  They ask, "Am I 'oversharing?'"

Since I consider myself to be a fairly private person, there's an apparent paradox here.  But as I pointed out to my dinner companion, "There is so much more about my life that I don't reveal, that it really doesn't seem to me that I'm revealing very much."  It's an illusion.  I try to write with an intimate tone.  There are rhetorical tricks.  I almost never address the audience directly.   There is no hint that I even think that I have "readers," much less that I'm writing for them.  The effect is that each reader feels as if they're being let into a very private rumination on whatever I'm musing about on that particular morning.  It's an illusion.

Someone who read the blog regularly and studied it would be able to put together a handful of facts.  They'd know where I work and what my job is, but next to nothing about what I actually do in my job on a day to day basis.  They'd deduce that my mother is still living and that we're close, and that my father died some time ago, but nothing about my siblings or my relationships to them.  They'd know some stories about Lynn and I, but none that I haven't told a dozen times in social settings.  They'd know I'm bonkers about my granddaughter and that I take my role as an amateur musician pretty seriously.  They'd get a pretty good idea about what I think about the present & future of my profession and maybe a little bit about my political views.

There is so much that they wouldn't know.  The image that they might construct of me would be a caricature at best.  And I like it that way.   I never write anything here that I don't believe to be true, but in the very act of carefully choosing what to reveal, I protect the things I wish to keep most private.

It is striking how often bloggers, coming home from a conference, write about how great it was to finally meet, in person, people that they've come to know online, sometimes for many years.  And I love the pictures that get posted, the grins on the faces of people in bars & restaurants, laughing and joking with people they've known, but haven't really known.

In Mark's inaugural address last year (Mark -- would you put that up on youtube?  Would you mind if I did?), he spoke eloquently and very perceptively about why we continue to meet in person when we have this growing armamentarium of tools that enable us to communicate and work effectively from the comfort and privacy of our own rooms.  The simple answer is that we gain things from that in person contact that none of the other modes provide.  Second life is no substitute for first life.

However, as he pointed out in his presidential address this year and in his farewell post yesterday, the tools give us the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to transform how we spend our time when we get together.  We should not be wasting time in committee meetings delivering reports that should have been electronically distributed in advance -- we should be taking that time to argue and discuss the implications of some of those reports.    Rather than spending fifteen minutes listening to someone present their ideas and then not have enough time for discussion because we've got to get on to the next paper, we need to figure out how to restructure our meetings so that we're distributing the information ahead of time and taking advantage of the time together to interact.

LiB writes about her frustration at not being allowed to participate in some ALA activities because they require in person attendance at both ALA meetings every year.   I'm sympathetic to her frustration, but only to a point.  The MLA Board of Directors does an increasing amount of its work at a distance, and it certainly makes us more efficient and effective.  But I can't imagine the Board being as productive as it is if we didn't come together three times a year and spend a day and a half in the same room getting to know each other and each other's views.  There are discussions that you can only have when you've got the full range of in person communication elements at play.  Similarly, the group of librarians and publishers that met at the O'Hare Hilton on Thursday could not possibly have come to the end of that day feeling as bonded and exhilarated as we all did if we hadn't spent all of that time physically in the same space.   The wine at dinner the night before was important, too.   Associations shouldn't reflexively require in person attendance just because it's always been that way, but there are circumstances where it is still essential.  Figuring out which is which is the challenge.

Lynn and I fell in love via email.  If it hadn't been for that primitive tool (we're talking 1993), we never would have gotten together.  The transformative power of all of these communication media is fabulous and allows us to develop friendships and working relationships that would never have come about before.  In our working lives (and, specifically for me, within the Medical Library Association) we have to experiment and play and see what we can do to take the utmost advantage of the opportunities provided to be more inclusive and to make more and better connections (to echo Mark's theme).  But the energy and excitement that pervaded the Hyatt as people who knew each other only online were able to spend time in each other's company is persuasive proof of the critical importance of spending time face-to-face and hand-in-hand.  We're humans.  Even a nonsocial guy like me knows how badly we need it.


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