Every day, many times a day, millions of people snub millions of other people on the Internet. It happens amongst those of us that are fortunate enough (or unfortunate – depending on your viewpoint) to have crossed a relatively modest threshold of social connections facilitated by the Internet and more specifically email.
The typical snubbing goes something like this:
- You’re introduced to someone in person or you reach out to someone that you think is worth connecting with. You send an email.
- They respond and thank you for the note and convey that they’d love to meet up some time for a drink or lunch or coffee or whatever.
- You follow up with them and they never respond. Ever.
I can attest that this has happened to me. I can also shamefully attest that I’ve done this to others. I promise a follow-up and I never actually follow up.
Here’s the ugly reality of email overload: the outcome isn’t just a cluttered inbox. It’s countless people waiting to be acknowledged and – dare I say – respected. But we simply can’t do it. We can only handle so much at a time. The incredible efficiency of email and other communication tools have far outpaced and blown out our own expectations of how we should respectfully and properly communicate with one another.
As I stare at my countless emails, I know for certain that there are senders in there that deserve a response and probably won’t get it. Many times a day, every day we send the following signal to those waiting on the other end:
“I haven’t gotten to you because there are others that are more important to me right now and, I’m sorry to say, you just haven’t made it up the list.”
Doesn’t it sound awful? This is exactly what we do when the flow of emails come in. We prioritize in real-time. The chosen few will get a response. Some will get one almost immediately. The rest? They get nothing. They don’t even get a “sorry, I’m very busy right now” response. They get silence.
When we do run into someone we’ve failed to respond to, we usually pile on the “…I’ve just been so slammed with work and the whole conference thing that I just haven’t been able to catch up!” The other person usually just smiles and looks away. They understand where they’ve landed on the priority list.
Everyone applauds the hyper-connectedness we’re experiencing today. The truth is we can’t really leverage it in a very meaningful way. There are a chosen few that get proper attention, the rest just end up in a sort of long tail of human connections. They’re relegated to an almost trivial status – only acknowledged as a scored point on your “friends” or “followers” tally.
There’s been a lot of interesting discussion of late about what the Internet is doing to our brains. Nick Carr is leading the charge with a recent Wired feature and a new book called The Shallows. In short, the barrage of information that comes at us via the Internet is rewiring our brains. We’re optimizing ourselves for short, fleeting bursts of information. The capacity to focus and think deeply is under threat. I agree with much of Carr’s thinking because I’m experiencing it first hand.
Carr makes a compelling argument on the psychological impact of the Internet. What’s most unnerving to me is that some of the “content” I’m consuming (or expected to consume) isn’t a book or an article. It’s people. My diminishing ability to focus and give due attention is actually having a social impact on the people I know and the people that attempt to connect with me.
A new social protocol is emerging. We’re starting to sense that we can’t really give one another due attention. The outcome is a dilution of the basic building blocks of social mores. Words like “friend” or “connection” have been watered down and our expectations around them have diminished as well.
Take each of us in this shallow state that Carr describes and put us in a Petri dish. How will we connect? Do we just buzz around occasionally bumping into another? Can we connect deeply? Will we give one another the chance to form the subtle but deep roots that connect people in a meaningful way?
I don’t think anyone can predict how we’ll adjust and tweak our behavior to deal with these changes. We’re flooded with information today, but it doesn’t linger. It doesn’t stick around and age. The best social connections we can make are the ones that we keep around and cultivate. I hope we don’t lose that capacity to give worthwhile connections their due attention. As the writer and critic John Leonard said: “It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”