All Growed Up as an Info Freako
The future of syndication that folks at Web2.0 are professing is really structured around information organization and access. It's about people who are addicted to content, people who want to be peripherally aware of some discussions that are happening. It is not about people who use these tools to maintain an always-on intimate community. There is a huge cultural divide occurring between generations, even as they use the same tools. Yet, i fear that many of the toolmakers aren't aware of this usage divide and they're only accounting for one segment of the population.
As I was writing about falling for the podcasting hype, I'd mentally queued up some ideas for something further relating to my growing addiction to NPR and news in general. Danah's writing about youth and feeds and intimate communication versus institutional communication resonates well with what I've been tossing around in my head.
When I was in high school, around about the time Ross Perot was getting into the presidential race, I remember putting a little item on my to-do list in my brand new day planner:
- Read the newspaper, watch the news.
I must've been, what, 16 years old? I suppose that would have made me one of the youths Danah's talking about, albeit of an earlier generation of online communicators. At the time, the bulk of my disposable income earned as a grocery store bagger was spent on music CDs, gas, and the occasional upgrade to my Commodore Amiga. I didn't even know was NPR was, though I knew there was this thing they did with news on the radio. But newspapers and talk on the radio were things that my grandparents paid attention to, if anything.
The only reason I put that item on my to-do list--in fact, the only reason I even had a day planner with a to-do list in the first place--was because, according to the teachers trying to prepare me for college, this was what grownups did. Planning your days and reading the news were things that adults did, and if I wanted to be an adult, I should get with the program. And I wanted to get with the program, but I really didn't see the point yet.
However, I did live most of my social life online. Now, that needs a bit of qualification: Of course, I am a big geek and many of my kind spend their days living in Mom's basement talking to men pretending to be 14-year-old girls. But, back when I was first getting online, the main gateway for access was the dial-up BBS, preferably one that was a local call to your area code and prefix. What that meant is that most of the people I was chatting with online were within a 16-year-old's parentally condoned driving radius.
So, I never lived in the basement, and I did actually get out quite a bit. The only real strange bit was that very few of my social group went to school together--and actually, most of us were misfits in school, some counting the minutes till we could get back to each other. Having just finished Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe (read on my Treo 600, my comm, no less), I can totally grok the tribes. Mine was as small as an area code or two, rather than a time zone, but I had a tribe. Still do, even though we've since dispersed across many, many area codes. Now there's LiveJournal and Xanga, among other tribe-building technologies.
But lately, in the past few years, I've been changing. I'm only 29 now, but I've learned what a day planner is for and my to-do list is crucial; I know enough about the news on TV not to watch it much, yet I pull in enormous volumes of news from online sources and magazines. And, as I wrote earlier, NPR is now the only station on my radio dial.
When I was 16, the presidential race was a curiosity about which I felt vague guilt for not knowing more. But, this time around I'm giving it an attention and range of emotion akin to a rabid sports fan during playoffs. I lost sleep over whether or not my voter registration was up to date with my correct address. I do realize that for many, many reasons this particular presidential race is historic. But I'm a johnny-come-lately--there've been historic presidential races before: history didn't start because I started paying attention.
What's happened is that I've changed. If I could time-travel and stop by to say hello, my high-school-self would probably admire who I am now, but wouldn't quite understand me. He'd get the half-dozen IRC windows I have open, and the handful of IM windows I'm floating at any particular moment, but I doubt he'd get the lure of my news aggregator in the background. I loved Jesus Jones at the time, but I didn't really know what it meant to be an Info Freako.
What changed in me? I'm not quite sure. I'm sure there's something going on with hormones and the few grey hairs I have now. But I think it has something to do with actually starting to become a grownup. That is, I'm paying taxes, I'm acting in the world, I have responsibilities, and I've left the shelter of my parents' house. All the way from elementary school through college, I was on rails, and there wasn't much I needed to know other than what they were teaching to get by. Now, though, I'm off the rails, and I feel I need all the information I can get, just to figure out how to navigate.
Maybe it's become obsessive, but I don't want to miss any vital data that will help lead me toward my bliss, to grow up without growing old. And I know that, however small, my actions have consequence in the world, so I want to understand. I am a member of a civilization. I think I get that now.
So, anyway, if anything I'm just underscoring with my own experience that usage divide between youth and older info freako adults Danah wrote about. I've been on both sides of it now, I think.
Where I think I disagree a bit is about trends: she asks if this Info Freako style of massive feed consumption will be relevant beyond the Web 2.0 crowd of today. As an early adopter of a technologically-driven social life, I would have to guess that the current generation will produce some even more obsessive Info Freakos than the oldsters around today.
Because, if my own experience is any guide, we start off using the technology to talk to each other in tribes. However, as (or, I guess, if) we grow up and become fully acting members of our civilization, we turn to the same sorts of tech to converse with the civilization itself. Whether that will take the form of massive feed consumption, I don't know, because I have to assume the tech will be very much changed by then. I can see the intimate communication habits progressing to civic and national and global communication habits, even in myself.
The problem, though, is that once you start making ventures out of your tribe, you start running into the limits of your neocortex. Communication must necessarily lose its intimacy and give way to group-to-group and one-to-many conversations. That's where I see feeds coming in to supplement IM and email--though I certainly hope by then that there's a lot more intelligence behind feeds and microcontent routing and user interface, a lot of the principles will be the same.
But, in any case, I think we're in for some interesting history coming up, as more youths used to texting each other take up roles as members of civilization.