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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Etiquette in the Electronic Age: Time for A Guidebook?

Chris Brogan's blog today "The Anywhen Manifesto"   got me to thinking about etiquette in the electronic age.  We're being constantly pulled one way and another by the demands of the new electronic media.  As fast as the tech people can add features to our cell phones and laptops, televisions and Blackberries, some marketer somewhere finds a way to use that feature to pester and annoy us.  They pile our computer memory with little programs that track how we use the Internet and bombard us with ads their software thinks we want to see.

They even claim it's a service to us, as all the while our computers gradually run slower and slower, forcing us to go out and spend hard cash to buy other software that takes off the software spies that were placed on our computers without permission in the first place. The new electronic communications media piles images, messages and demands for action on us to the point that many of us feel overwhelmed by it all - buried in e-mail, voice mail and Twitters.

The Internet and the new electronic media is, undoubtedly a young and vibrant media.  Like anything young, it hasn't yet learned the value of being polite!  That's to be expected.  The question is, "Should the resultant crudity of the new media be tolerated by our society?"

Years ago, Emily Post wrote a thick book on etiquette that set the tone for social behavior for decades in our society.  Someone codified polite behavior and those who valued polite behavior adopted her guide and set the tone for others who, though they might never have read Miss Emily, were nevertheless impacted by her strategic guide for improving the quality of life in "polite society".

Perhaps it is time to write a 21st century etiquette to guide us in deploying the new media.  Can we use the strengths of the new media to overcome the nasty bits that keep cropping up as new and useful technological tools are developed?

E-mail is wonderfully useful as a tool for time-shifting.  You can put off till later, the reading of your e-mail and handle it when you have time.  Listserves were early and useful on-line communities that developed around this valuable characteristic of e-mail.  Unfortunately, the nasty bit that came with the listserve was spam. Then came spam filters which have helped some, if not perfectly.  Then came MySpace and Facebook and we soon had a kind of e-mail on steroids, but with that came the marketers and things began to be built into these tools that waste our time.

For instance, there is a little social game on Facebook called Farmville.  Lots of my friends and family play it and it's actually a lot of fun.  But the problem is, the marketers are busy with the game maximizing the amount of time you have to spend there to keep up your farm, thereby maximizing how long you look at the advertisements in the sidebars.  The idea is to achieve a delicate balance whereby players stick with the game because they get rewarded with special junk for their electronic farms in exchange for spending hours piddling with the game and looking at ads. They are probably making pots of advertising dollars.

Now these games are everywhere and I feel obligated to play because my loved ones keep sending me stuff, but I'm beginning to realize I can't do it anymore and keep up with my career and personal things I want and need to do. These kinds of games can be very impolite.  They could, I think, still achieve their purpose, though perhaps not as lucratively by incorporating some principles of politeness.

Chris Brogan posted his "Anywhen Manifesto" to address what he calls an "Assault on Anywhen".  Anywhen is Chris' word for that most valuable of characteristics of the new electronic media, the ability to time-shift work or communications to a more convenient time for the user.  This document is a nice start. It provides a strategic framework for pushing back against those who would take by force, the very things about the new communications technology that can potentially improve our lives.

Time-shifting is the big thing we stand to lose.  Do we want to go back to the days when a telephone HAD to be answered.  Twitter and text-messaging, to some extent is doing that to us, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not. Are the creators of the new technology using human weaknesses like the need for acceptance or attention to enslave us to our PDA's.  It's sad, because PDA's, hi-tech cell phones and laptops have the potential to give us power over when we communicate and when we go to our kid's Little League game. Instead, some media purveyors seem intent on tying us down and cutting us off from the world around us.

Perhaps what we need is a 21st century Emily Post for the Internet Age - a guide to how to engage the basic principles of politeness as we deploy new electronic communications technology.  Can we create an electronic "etiquette" that recognizes that human beings have a basic need for privacy, for control of their own time and energies and for boundaries that are recognized and respected by polite people.

Just because a new electronic tool CAN do something, does that mean it should?  This should be explored. It's a great idea for a book.  I do believe I will suggest that to a publisher.

Just One Man's Opinion

Tom King


Judy Helfand said...

I have been following the Anywhen Manifesto, your comments on Chris' post and yesterday I read your post here. We weren't all still sleeping, just taking care of family and friends on a Sunday. I want you to know that I like the passion of your writing, but I don't know if we need another book on etiquette. You can probably just reapply Emily Post's advice. Also, I am not sure why you got pulled into the social games on Facebook. As soon as I saw some of my friends (who are retired) involved in these games, I hid the games. Finished, complete, no more waste of my time. You don't have to feel obligated to play a virtual game. I think we are allowing ourselves to be "abused" and instead correcting our course we may now "abuse" our clients, albeit unintentionally.
Finally, your last point probably should be restated to say: Just because a new electronic tool CAN do something, does that mean I need to download it and use it?

A year ago I wrote the following post to disucss the cold, impersonal use of email by a former employer. You might enjoy reading it.

Nice meeting you.

Tom King said...

You are right, I don't think we need exactly an Emily Post style book on Etiquette. I borrowed a copy today. It's almost 4 inches thick. I think what I had in mind was more of a call to arms, challenging all of us to adopt a shared view of what is ethical uses of technology. Most manners and politeness is about choosing what you will and will not do. You cannot, of course, force anyone to be polite. You can, however, voluntarily shun those who deliberately dump dirt in the drinking water.

I actually did mean the last point the way I said it. It was aimed at technology developers. It's like with geneticists. Just because you could create a 4-legged turkey thereby making sure Uncle Larry gets a turkey leg at Thanksgiving too, does that mean you should create such a turkey regardless of what sort of disabled turkey you create in the process.

In the same way, just because we can create software that sneaks onto people's computers and memorizes their password keystrokes, does that mean you should do that. If you think you can create a weapon that dissolves the skin off people when it is deployed, should you make one just to see if you can?

That's a little extreme, but Should we be making software tools that deliberately use people's psychological makeup against them for our own profit.

If I were doing a game like Farmville, I would make it much easier to maintain so people who wanted to play the game socially could do so without having to invest hours and hours into keeping up with it. I got into Farmville as a way to socially interact with members of my family who were obviously enjoying the game and had time. I've quickly learned how to minimize the workload so that I don't much mind spending 15 minutes here or there with it for the sake of the social rewards I get from it.

I avoided any of the game applications for months and months until I decided to get into it as an experiment. Having a background in marketing, I realized quickly what the traps were. It has been fascinating watching them waltz the line between being too cumbersome and too easy for players to play. About the time players began to be frustrated with the game's creeping interface, they released a new feature that cleaned up the problem, thereby using player gratitude to reattach the player to the game. Playing Farmville is a graduate course in marketing manipulation if you watch closely and take notes. They use Facebook fan pages to gauge the mood of their consumers and plan the deployment of a feature designed to ease unrest among the farmers.

Fascinating stuff. I have converted my Farm Town holdings to nothing but trees (which never wither) and only visit every week or so. My Farmville site is going self-supporting next and then I can accept a few gifts once in a while to keep my sisters-in-law happy without being overwhelmed by farm work.

It's been very educational all in all.