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Sorry I was laughing during your funeral

When contexts collide.

Since the advent of Twitter I’ve often found myself laughing at funerals, crying at parties, and generally failing time and again to say the right thing. Twitter is so immediate, so of the moment, but it connects people across the globe who may be experiencing very different moments.

This first struck me during the Arab Spring. Maybe I was just finishing a nice dinner in Philadelphia and was lingering over a drink, tweeting the usual crap, while a world away Egyptians (and later Libyans and Syrians) were out by the thousands throwing themselves into mortal danger. Of course, they weren’t paying attention to my banalities while they filled Tahir Square and defended Aleppo, but I still floated by. And in any case, my tweet stream was full of their moment, raging past me. Once I noticed the dichotomy, my political witticisms and flippant comments on the news of the day tossed out between bites of my dessert seemed ridiculous as they bobbed downstream amidst all that anger, action, and danger. It just felt so, … inappropriate. I couldn’t help but go silent. A more primitive sense of decorum, evolved while our voices shared common place and time, welled up and shut me up.

I thought of this again the other night but in reverse. I was very fortunate and came through Sandy basically unscathed. But in the late afternoon of the storm I was out in the wind and rain for about an hour and a half trying to stop a water leak that was flowing through my foundation into the basement, while the whole time I had one eye on a 100-foot pine tree that was swaying threateningly over me. When I came back in, soaked through, and with my mind 100% on Sandy and my immediate safety, I checked Twitter out of habit. Naturally, the first tweet I saw was from Darrell Issa, snug in California, tweeting about the latest non-hurricane-related thing he wanted us to rage about. Dammit Darrell, we’re in the middle of a hurricane, we’ll get pissed about Benghazi next week ok?

During Sandy most of us east coasters had just one thing on our minds while our west coast friends’ normal lives continued unabated. We were tweeting about threatening trees, power outages, and 14th street fire balls while they were tweeting about Windows 8, a Yammer user conference, and whatnot. Lots of people on both coasts, who didn’t feel immediately threatened, were making light and telling jokes. In response I saw more than a few tweets along the lines of “not really appreciating the jokes while I watch the water rise.”

When I went about my business during the Arab Spring I used to feel weird, like they might read my tweets and think “Don’t you know we’re dying out here? There you are just living your life. What’s wrong with you?” The other night I had to remind myself that 2,500 miles and the continental divide separated my moment from those of my friends in California. Two streams, naturally bifurcated by geography and current experience, flowed together to mix awkwardly on my phone.

And it continues now. For many of us even here in the East, Sandy is basically over. We are fortunate. We have power, food in the refrigerator, and a place to brew our coffee. But all over New Jersey and New York this remains far from true. The storm will be millions of people’s primary context for weeks to come. I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to risk a bit of carefully hoarded smart phone battery, while separated from the flood-ravaged street by flight after flight of dark staircase, to take a quick glance at Twitter only to see “OMFG, will Disney put mouse ears on Darth Vader?” That’s #dissonance.

In the immediacy of the moment, this isn’t context collapse, where we self-consciously present ourselves to the context multi-verse in some subconsciously bland and universally appropriate way. Nope, this is a massive context collision because Twitter is so here and now. Here we are just jotting down our immediate thoughts, cozy in our moment, and firing them off to ricochet around everyone else’s.

And what else should we expect? I saw a tweet the other day admonishing all of us for not having paid attention to Sandy when she was still ravaging the Caribbean on her way here. I wasn’t there. It wasn’t my experience. I’m not sure what to do with that.

I think one of the things that made things particularly jarring during Sandy is that usually my tweet stream is the exposed consciousness of a single tribe. Left coast or right, the technologists I follow are approximately alike on both coasts. Conversations coalesce around similar memes and you’d have a hard time pulling an individual’s geography out of their topic and focus. But not today, and certainly not in the last two days. Our lives will be filled with very different experiences for a while. I’m at a funeral, you’re at a party, and we’re talking on the phone.

In any case, don’t read this as a scold. It’s not. I’m just reflecting on my own disquiet. My sense of social norms developed in a face-to-face world and I can’t help but feel an unease, an idea that I’m behaving inappropriately, when my tweets are out of synch with the mass of experience that is flowing past me.

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  • unworld

    Get off your phone. Talk to the person next to you. Make them feel less lonely. If there’s no one there, go find someone. Checking twitter at a funeral, that’s the dissonance. No hash tag required. You are tweeting through the looking glass.

  • Doug Hill

    Nice piece, Jim. I liked very much this comment: “I’m just reflecting on my own disquiet.”

    My two cents: I do think there’s truth to the notion that attention is a zero sum game. We only have so much to dispense or consume, whether in short, spur-of-the-moment bursts or longer reflections. One can feed the other (as your piece demonstrates), but you can’t do both at once. I also think that your experience during the storm lends credence to the oft-disputed view that there IS a genuine distinction between offline and online realities (“digital dualism”).

    • Jim Stogdill

      Thanks Doug. A commenter on Google+ made the point about Twitter’s synchronicity. I think that’s probably what I was really reflecting on. That it’s flatness and immediacy connects people and places in the midst of very different experience in a way that can be very awkward.

      • Doug Hill

        Synchronicity? Hmm. Forgive me if I misunderstand — perhaps there’s a meaning to the term I don’t know — but wouldn’t it be a case of asynchronicity? You’re talking about a connection in time and circumstance (via Twitter) that evokes a striking dissimilarity in meaning or relationship, whereas as I understand synchronicity (in the Jungian sense), the connection in time and circumstance would seem strikingly *related* in meaning.

        • Jim Stogdill

          I mean as in synchronous. Bringing two contexts together in time exposes their dissimilarity.

        • Doug Hill

          Got it….and apologies if I projected my own obsessions on your thoughts…may have been another instance of synchronicity.

        • Jim Stogdill

          No worries! I appreciate your comments.

  • nganboy

    And all the time there are huge numbers of people starving to death or ekeing out miserable subsistence living level lives while we ponder our first world problems

  • http://twitter.com/vzach Valentin

    I think this idea of “contexts collide” was captured perfectly years back in (a part of) the end of the movie blood diamond (see the scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MT9yNzCCDhU – the entire movie is worth watching, though)

    • Jim Stogdill

      Great scene.

    • Doug Hill

      Nice! I will try to find this movie On Demand. (This scene reminiscent of For Whom the Bell Tolls.)

  • Roxane D

    Thank you for this article.

    It really makes me think. I don’t know what it’s teaching me yet, but I will learn something out of this reflection…

    Watching this scene of Blood Diamond was a great illustration too. I always loved that movies that I’ve seen many times and I didn’t like this scene that much. I found it a bit cheesy and awkward compared to the rest of the movie. Especially because Maddy the journalist seems to be so out of it, calling from this café… It gave me the uncomfortable feeling she was just craving for adventure all along the movie without never understanding how real all that story was for some people.
    After reading this article, I understood the scene very differently and I understood Maddy’s character also differently. Now, I’m just thinking she could be me.