A Unified Message

The other day I overheard a teenaged girl telling a friend excitedly about Facebook’s new Messages service, and what Mark Zuckerberg is calling a “social in-box.”   She was an attractive, normal-looking girl, and she told her friend, “Like, it’s, like, a, like, social in-box, and like, I’ll be able to, like, get all sorts of, like, messages, from all my, like, friends!  It’s, like, fabulous!”

I think she liked it.

There were so many social and technological issues bumping and grinding here I had to go for a walk to think about it.  We really have quite a few communication options nowadays.  For example, two people can have a face-to-face conversation, which is one of my favorite techniques.  There are some costs, I suppose, since two people have to be roughly at arm’s distance away.  But there are also advantages, in that you can see their facial expressions and body language, you can smell their cologne, and even the distance one person prefers to stand from another is a part of the message.  It’s a rich mode of correspondence, with a lot of information conveyed.

A phone call boasts some of those same advantages, such as hearing the voice volumes and inflections, but clearly something is lost, while a gain in convenience is achieved.  There is also the historical, low-tech version of a face-to-face conversation, which is a letter or card, in which one uses a pen to write the intended message.  (“Hey, grandpa, what’s that?”  “It’s a pen.”)  That’s a good one, since the handwriting, font sizes and other graphical cues, and even the paper used, all become part of the message.  There are downsides, such as obtaining the pen, paper, envelope and stamp, and then you’ve got to find a mailbox, which is getting harder.  And part of the nuance of a written letter is the very fact that the sender went to the trouble of writing and mailing it.

Email was a cool advance, in that it allowed the speed and editing convenience of a word processor, so no eraser is needed, and the immediacy of instant message delivery.  Facebook, as a communication tool, has become both a crutch and a crucible.  People communicate with it not only with written broadcasts but also with photos, video, and links to news articles and more.  The idea of integrating all my social inputs into one amalgamated inbox was compelling.

A few days later I had signed on to Facebook Messages, loaded all the apps onto my smart phone, and had directed all possible social inputs into one place, what I called my Windshield.  I could drive down Connected Avenue and take it all in.  It was a nice day so I was out on a walk, when I ran into a buddy of mine, so we started a conversation on one of our favorite topics, food and wine.  Moments into our talk, there was an incoming text message, which took just a few moments to read.  Then an email popped in, which was good, because it confirmed a dinner date.

My friend’s smile had flattened a bit, but we carried on.  A Twitter tweet arrived, but took only a blink to read, because they’re so short.  Then my phone started beeping, which I recognized as Morse code, which an old ham radio buddy of mine uses.  I was rusty, but still got the gist.  My friend was looking down at his shoes, never a good sign.

At that point I noticed puffs of smoke coming from Bunker Hill, a short distance from here in East Boston, and understood that they were smoke signals.  Luckily I had downloaded Google’s Goggles onto my phone, so I photographed the smoke puffs, and my phone’s app translated the message for me.  It was from an old Indian chief I had met while camping in the Berkshires, and my smoked salmon was ready to pick up.  Over my friend’s shoulder I saw a guy standing on a distant tower, using semaphore flags.  He was an employee of Tower Wines, informing me that a case of wine I had ordered had just come in.  Suddenly I sensed a low frequency pounding, but instead of a headache from all this social networking, it was the sound of drums coming from a good distance.  A colleague had lost his tongue and vocal chords after a lifetime of smoking, so he beat on drums to send messages.  It was one of those lame messages that people still insist on sending out to all their contacts – he was telling everyone that he had eaten a tuna salad sandwich for lunch.

At that moment I looked up to admire some sky-writing.  It took a few seconds to get over the shock, but it was my food and wine buddy up there piloting his Cessna.  What he was writing in the clouds was his displeasure at me being so distracted by all these social inputs.  He had become so impatient – and I have to say I sympathized with him – that he had left me standing there, and I hadn’t even noticed.  He had walked away, had driven to Logan Airport just a few hundred yards from where we had been standing, and had taken off.  He wrote that it would be easier for him to get a word in this way, instead of competing with all the other signals.

It has all become too much.  I have to get out of here.  The only solution is to buy a canoe and set out for a simpler life in the country, and get away from all this social networking technology.  But don’t call me; I’ll call you.  Just listen for a guy pounding on a log with a big stick.

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