I was engaged in an interesting conversation with Karri, so I didn’t reach in my pocket when my phone buzzed. We continued talking until another remark across the room caught her attention, and she excused herself from the couch where we were sitting. Her husband Greg, who’d been doing something on his phone next to her, was now chatting with someone on the adjacent couch.
I checked my phone to see what the message had been. It was a note from Greg, complimenting me on some work I’d done earlier that he’d just seen. I smiled, reached over, and touched his knee, saying a brief “thank you” before getting up in search of chips.
One of Amanda Turkle’s biggest arguments in the book Alone Together is the idea that the “always-on” culture is an interrupting culture, that causes time to be out of joint, somehow. I understand the idea – almost everyone I know has been in some conversation that turns into an eye-rolling exasperated “excuse me” when a phone pings – but I think it also presumes some idyllic world where all our conversations are Socratic masterpieces of smoothly-crafted rhetorical bliss.
The reality is that life is full of interruptions, from the baby crying to the bladder complaining to the simple sight of a butterfly flapping its wings out the window. We’ve always had to fight interruption, not only from the outside but also from our own struggle with signal to noise.
Admittedly, having an extra device in your pocket can mean just one more space for distraction. But…did you see what actually happened up there?
Greg had a thought, the impulse to express some enthusiasm for some of my work. We were at a cocktail party; there was no reason why he couldn’t have just leaned over and said so. Heck, it was his wife, so it was even easier for him to feel safe in interrupting us.
But he took a moment to evaluate what he was going to say, and decided that it was not time-sensitive. It needed to be expressed, but did not have to be expressed right then. So he basically slipped a note in my pocket, knowing that I would reach in and read it later. This meant that his wife and I could finish our conversation.
He had no idea when I’d reach in my pocket and look at my phone, and really, he didn’t care; he knew I would. He created this backchannel communication between us, so that we could communicate distemporally even while his wife and I were talking. Then he stepped out of the backchannel and back into the world of time-based communication, where he would be talking with someone face to face.
When I looked at the message, I was the one who chose to interrupt him – even if only slightly – by thanking him in person with a smile and a touch. Nothing more than that, it wasn’t eloquent by any means, but rather more like a gestural emoticon. I could have texted him back, of course, and not interrupted, but for a quick “thank you” it seemed like this would be better, and actually less intrusive.
Finding the Mix
I think this is the process of growing up into an augmented life. You learn to figure out where the backchannel is, and how best to use it to improve your communication with others. One way to see it in action is to watch a tv show that has some kind of twitter hashtag associated with it. As you see people’s comments about the show everyone is watching together, it’s hard to agree with Dr. Turkle that somehow these devices are making us less social in their use.
Of course, I suspect she would argue that in those cases yes, this is truly social media. It’s when people are using the backchannel for important things that we run into problem. The backchannel can carry meaningful information; it just can’t necessarily carry urgent information. When people are using a backchannel as an avoidance mechanism to escape the awkwardness of difficult conversations, it becomes a distancing element, not a building one.
Then again, urgency can’t be the only thing that distinguishes backchannel-worthy information. Finding out from a family member that an old friend died via a Facebook comment: that was something that was too important for a backchannel. It wasn’t urgent, but it was so important that I would have wanted it to be its own subject, not tacked onto something else.
On the other hand, I once had a partner insist that I cancel dinner plans with several friends from out-of-town because she had to talk. That talk basically consisted of her saying “So, I don’t want to date any more.” Would it have been awkward to have gotten that via text? Yes, but probably not as awkward as the rest of the dinner that we had with nothing left to say.
I don’t know that I’ve figured out the best way to use the backchannels in my life. But I am certain of one thing: I’m very glad they are there. Let me know what you think; I’ve set up a backchannel just for us, right down there.