Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Ties That Blind

Barack Obama is Now Following You On Twitter!

David Letterman, while still at NBC, regularly ran a bit in which he interviewed audience members about their “brush with greatness”, also the title of the segment. Greatness has always been very considerate with us at marketmambo, providing the widest possible margin at each passing. We once most literally brushed the arm of Mike Wallace at the top of his 60 Minute greatness, while we each approached a urinal in the restroom at the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago. Funny how our moment came when men are the least likely to strike up a conversation.

But we’ve been given a second chance. “Barack Obama is Now Following You (Us, that is) On Twitter”. That was the subject line of an email we recently received. We must admit to the brief elation one feels when elevated above their station, the feeling the low-slung gopher must have when he rises on his haunches and looks across and then down at his fellow gophers still on all fours.

Twitter, for the uninitiated, is a new (about a year old) web-based service that allows members to send and receive short (140 character max) messages from a chosen group of other members on their computers and as text messages on their phones. These messages or “tweets” are the response to the query which is the mission of Twitter: “What are you doing?” The tweets typically contain updates such as “Having a green tea with Joe at Club X”, “Just got to the airport” or possibly if we had someone to tweet, “Typing a post about Twitter”. All these tweets occur in near-real time, and unlike email, chase you down and pop-up on your cell phone. Also unlike email, which offers a promise of important information, tweets are intentionally without real purpose.

We at marketmambo try to keep abreast of the latest products offered in the Web 2.0 catalog. Sometimes because the products may be actually useful, sometimes because they hold great potential, and sometimes, like another low-slung mammal, the lemming, we can’t help but wonder where everyone is going. It’s the latter that drove us to join Twitter. We must admit that we’re unsure how Twitter would find a place in our life, although our beloved and respected sister, Lena Mambo, tells us that it’s more valuable than we currently believe, and promises to personally provide the necessary enlightenment.

We were disappointed when we joined Twitter because we had no one to tweet, and no one to tweet us. But we learned that Barack Obama tweets, as does Hilary Clinton. Our understanding is that McCain doesn’t tweet, but often toots. So we connected with the Democratic hopefuls, someone using the nom de tweet Darth Vader (how could we resist?), and a guy, Tony, who sells clothing on and tweets all the livelong day (thanks Lena).

And that’s what led to the email from Barack, which we now feel comfortable calling him. He’s one of our Twitter followers, and we are one of his, meaning we have agreed to accept each other’s Tweets. We believe we’re Barack follower number 28,746, which is the number his follower-ticker turned to after our note.

Tony of Zappos is also now a follower. No word yet from Hilary Clinton. Cold.

The entangling web

Our intention is not to question the motivations of those who use Twitter, or the value of the service. The most common take on Twitter is “you really don’t get it until you use it”. That is likely true. One statistic floats about, unverified by Twitter, that active users average 15 tweets per day. We believe that its current users only hint at its ultimate usefulness, and that Twitter will evolve into something even more compelling. More statistical rumors claim that Twitter has more than one million users and transfers three million tweets per day. We’ve almost reached the critical mass of an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters. Someone will figure it out.

But we at marketmambo have been struggling for the past few months with a different version of the question “What are you doing?” With cellphones, and iPhones, and Zunes, iTunes, email, text messaging, instant messaging, GPS, PNDs, Linked-in, Plexo, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and yes, we’ll include Blogger, How connected do we really need to be? How much information do we really need? Maybe we need a web-based service that doesn’t nudge us with the question “What are you doing?” but gently prods us with “What else could you be doing?”

But where’s the fun in that, and more important, where’s the money in that?

Tune in, turn off, shutdown

Saturday, May 3rd was the second annual Shutdown Day, a worldwide, self-imposed holiday from technology. Organizers encouraged tech addicts to break away from their computers and sample a little unmediated human interaction. Their website contains three videos about Shutdown Day, each 30 seconds long if you’d like to sample them. We’ve embedded one below, “Meet Your Kids”, which we feel best conveys the spirit of the event.

Shutdown Day is the idea of Ashutosh Rajekar, a file-systems architect from Montreal. "People are failing to socialize with each other and they are becoming outcasts, they are becoming more and more introverted". According to Rajekar, 50,000 web citizens agreed in 2007 to swear-off technology for the day. As of May 1, 12,000 agreed to the 2008 anti-tech Sabbath.

We were interested by the reactions to the event. We were unable to find any coverage for Shutdown Day by first-tier news media before the event. A casual scan of the following Monday’s blog chatter seemed to mostly convey the apologies of techies for giving in to their web urges or simply forgetting their pledge until it was too late. If we are mistaken in our observations please correct us.

So Shutdown Day didn’t receive the attention of Earth Day. Perhaps the battle against technological obsession hasn’t yet established the cache of the evils of carbon emissions. Maybe no one has figured out a way to wrap their brand in an anti-tech crusade. We certainly love our tech, so maybe our friend from Montreal has punched his clenched fist into the air only to be greeted by the throaty roar of indifference.

Pockets of resistance

Ariel Meadow Stalling lives in Seattle, works at Microsoft, and writes a blog called Electrolicious. She also declares herself a tech addict and is trying to reclaim part of her life with a personal project she calls “52 Nights Unplugged”. Each of Ariel’s upcoming Wednesday nights will be tech-free: no phone, no computer, no TV. She hopes to fill the void with cooking, dancing, crafts…well, visit her blog and you’ll see the list goes on. (You can also see the video from an interview she recently did with the Today Show) Ariel confesses:

"I realized that I was in a constant state of 'partial tasking'. I had the illusion that I was multitasking but the truth was, I was not actually doing anything fully except thinking about what to do next and how to keep in a state of a sort of intoxicated hyperactivity."

In October 2007, 150 engineers at Intel launched their own rebellion in the form of “Email-free Fridays”. This moratorium acknowledges the need to tend to email, especially from clients, but encourages the engineers to substitute face-to-face meetings whenever possible on the last (office) day of the work week. “Email-free Fridays” are already common practice at US Cellular and several other companies.

USA Today recently published one of their famous little charts which captures the state of the world at a glance. It showed that the worldwide daily volume of email has increased from 15 billion in 2000 to 97 billion in 2007. The companion article cites “experts” who report that it takes four minutes to refocus onto our tasks after dealing with email. Another expert reports zillions of dollars lost to the US economy because of internet distractions.

And then there’s the Lifehacker Movement. Currently a website of the same name (.com), lifehacking began as an idea presented by Danny O’Brien at a tech conference in 2004. “Hacking” represents a core value of techies: the cleverness of a simple idea to fix an otherwise insurmountable problem. Life “hacking” therefore is the application of clever ideas to efficiently fix those challenges presented by technology. The word has broadened in meaning at the website to include any idea which helps us do things faster, whether organizing emails or starting a compost heap.

Hair of the dog?

So we guess it comes down to efficiency. The tragedy of lost money, lost time. But isn’t the focus on the promise of greater efficiency what got us here in the first place? Some of this sounds a bit like the “hair of the dog” strategy of curing hangovers: the best solution to the pain of too much whiskey the night before is more whiskey in the morning.

We’ll mention one more movement intended to take on information overload. We had the pleasure to attend a seminar several years ago given by David Allen. Allen is the unavoidable product of the intersection of space and time: he was at Berkley in the ‘60’s. He studied history, Buddhism and drugs. Like so many others with similar experience, he now spends his mature years giving business advice to “the man”. He calls his seminar “Getting Things Done” and if you visit the blogs of techies, you’ll often see a link composed of those words or the initials, GTD.

Allen is in demand because his seminar offers a simple system for efficiently dealing with information, and many leave it at that, placing GTD on the same shelf, for example, as Lifehacking. But Allen ties his system to its ultimate Zen-inspired goal: “Only when our mind is clear and our thoughts are organized can we achieve results and unleash our creative potential.”

The Roaring Zeroes

Lena kept her promise. Somewhere between the first and final keystrokes of this posting our sister sat us down and explained Twitter. As always, she was enthusiastic and insightful. I am now more convinced than ever that Twitter will be something someday, and more convinced that whatever it becomes, its not there yet. Lena is off to a great life adventure which removes her from my geography. I sincerely wish her well. We have each other’s email addresses, blog addresses, and cell phone numbers. We’re connected on Linked-in and now follow each other on Twitter. But as we discussed Twitter, her new adventure, and life in general over lunch, the waitress came to our table three times offering to remove our plates. As it is always with Lena and me, our conversation distracted us from our food and any attention to what employers would call a reasonable time for lunch. I’ll miss my lunches with Lena and am sure that technology will provide only an unsatisfying substitute.

In November 2007, Walter Kirn wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Autumn of the Multitasker”, though not the point of the article, he referred to the first seven years of the our current century as “The Roaring Zeroes”. It seems to so successfully capture the furious motions and questionable progress of recent years. Please be sure, to us, this sentiment is not directed at any specific political denomination, at corporate leadership, at the chattering class of infotainers, or at any other us versus them. It’s directed only at us, the slave class that confuses being shackled to our fellow slaves with the pleasure of interpersonal connection.

We at marketmambo crave interpersonal connection also. If you visit, you can declare yourself a follower of tito mambo. We in turn promise to follow you. Unfortunately, we have not lived up to the average user tweet-rate of 15 per day. In fact we’ve so far only offered one tweet:

“With all this technology to connect us, why do we feel so disconnected from each other.”

Maybe our love of technology doesn’t deserve to be skewered. Maybe no one has yet risen to the task. We can’t help but think of Ben Hecht, who so thoroughly satirized the world of the old paper technology in “The Front Page”. There’s Paddy Chayefsky, who took on the previous (TV) technology with “Network”. We offer up Paddy’s words, as delivered by Peter Finch, and let our readers decide for themselves how well they may apply today.

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