Digital connections are at a point of mental-emotional exhaustion… Has it reached the ceiling? I find it hard to believe it will grow more; or evolve into a way that makes us connect in a more productive or fulfilling way. Maybe this is the Mayan prophecy after all. The global village is full. Here’s a story by David Carr, published today at the NYT, with the title of “My Dinner with Clay Shirky….”
Last week, I had dinner at Clay Shirky’s house along with a group of journalists and academics, all of whom are very active on the Web. Mr. Shirky is the oft-quoted thinker who wrote “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus.” I have no idea why he was having the dinner or why I was invited, only that it sounded like a fun, smart bunch. We all “know” each other, either through a direct online connection or by digital reputation, but I am more familiar with them as digital avatars than as people.
As a group, we have some things in common, like an obsession with the future of journalism, and I’ve engaged in vigorous digital debate with people at the dinner over the willingness of people to pay for journalism.
But, funny enough, we didn’t talk about that much in person. We talked about Twitter, the Facebook I.P.O. and the limits and glories of Storify. But we also talked about “Homeland,” school politics, New York provincialism and, as it turned out, bread.
Before dinner, Mr. Shirky set out some bread. It was warm on the inside, crusty on the outside, little French loaves of goodness. I went into the kitchen to ask where Mr. Shirky had found such treasure and he pointed to the oven and the loaf pans on top.
As it turns out, Mr. Shirky became very good at bread eating at a young age, so his mother decided that he should also be good at bread making. We all chewed on the bread as Mr. Shirky told the story of learning how to make bread as a 10-year-old.
Now, he could have told that story in a blog post or in an e-mail chain, but it became a very different story because we were tasting what he talked about. The connection in an online conversation may seem real and intimate, but you never get to taste the bread. To people who lead a less-than-wired existence, that may seem like a bit of a “duh,” but I spend so much interacting with people on the Web that I have become a little socially deficient.
In her book “Alone Together,” Sherry Turkle has written about the lack of nutrition in what seem like significant online relationships.
After an evening of avatar-to-avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection.
I left Mr. Shirky’s apartment with a full belly, but even more filled up by what happened around the perimeter of the bread. No one tweeted, no one texted, everyone talked. I’ve noticed more and more that when I go to gatherings, people are walking around in their own customized world defined by what is on their smartphone, not by who is sitting next to them at dinner. The serendipity of the offline world has been increasingly replaced by the nice, orderly online world where people only follow whom they want to and opt in to conversations that seem interesting.
The funny thing is, the user is not always the one who is doing the deciding. As the author Eli Pariser has written in “The Filter Bubble,” Facebook, Google and Yahoo are deciding what we want to know, even though we are the ones doing the searching.
We end up in what seems like a self-selected informational ghetto, finding out about what is most “relevant” to us, but not finding out much of anything new. Google would never know that I wanted to bake because I didn’t know it either. If someone had Google Plus-ed Mr. Shirky’s recipe for bread or provided a link on Twitter, I would have never clicked on it.
But because I had tasted the actual bread out in the actual world, I wanted to try to make it myself. I got online — yes, I stipulate to the irony — and goaded Mr. Shirky back into sharing the recipe. It might as well been a formula for cold fusion, what with its two separate pauses to let the dough rise and daunting list of tips, but the memory of the smell, of the taste, compelled me to try to make the bread.
(The writer and educator Zeynep Tufekci would point out that I never would have gotten around to eating that bread with those people unless I had had a digital connection to them. She has observed that so-called weak ties often lead to strong ones, )
I circulated a picture of my lumpy but fundamentally sound loaves to the ad hoc group that was formed around that dinner and we had some laughs. Yes, we did that online, but it was reprising something that had actually happened when we were together.
In addition to asking Clay for the bread recipe, I asked him about the ingredients of communication in a wired era. “When people talk to one another long enough, they want to meet, and when they’ve been in one another’s presence, they want to keep in touch.” In other words, we will probably break bread together as a group again.
All of which is a way of saying something that is probably obvious to others who are less digitally obsessed: you can follow someone on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, quote or be quoted by them in a newspaper article, but until you taste their bread, you don’t really know them.