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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