Friday, 1 February 2013

Austen & Twitter

Since last I wrote, we've celebrated the 200th anniversary of Pride & Prejudice, and my list of Twitter followers broke the 20 threshold.  The conglomeration of synapses which is my brain combines these two things to ponder the constant flux in culture.

I’m the one never given a Netflix vote in our house because inevitably, I choose a costume drama.  At sixteen, my favourite author was Tolstoy and even today, I’m not above causing a pained look on my son’s face by admitting in public that I really love Dickens.  Along the way, I’ve read everything Austen.

                                                           My current read.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m happy with my era.  While I quite fancy Georgian breeches, they in no way compensate for the lack of antibiotics.  It’s the effect of time and place on perception that intrigues me.  Who would I be, had I been born a hundred years earlier than I was? 

                                                   Obviously the hired help.

But cultural change happens today at a rate I imagine is unprecedented.  If you were walking down the street and overheard a conversation between two strangers, would you interject?  Would you interject abusively?  If you were at a party talking to an interesting person who changed the subject to something that didn’t interest you, would you walk away without excusing yourself?  

                                         Or would you cut off their virtual head?

These things happen on the internet all the time.

Being a newbie, the Twitter culture still fascinates me.  The  compression of complex communications into 140 characters, the etiquette, the sudden and truly wonderful connections with a wider community.  Followers come and go so quickly, it has nothing to do with me.  I’m the person followed, but the following isn’t personal.  When I post a blog pertinent to the texture and flavour of bananas, then I collect a banana enthusiast following.  When my next blog is about the evils which be snow, I lose banana followers and gain snow invasion conspiracists. 

                                                        Big Nosed dog rescue.

This may seem basic e-procedure, but it’s also a cultural dynamic.  With the information overload on the web, we have to discern and discard quickly.  It’s what our brains do in order to set aside the superfluous when there’s a tiger stalking us.  In fact, we have a wonderful ability to habituate and ignore irrelevant stimuli.  Stick a rose under your nose and see how soon you stop smelling it.

But . . . on the other side of the snow blog that you’ve rejected, there is a person.  We are changing the way we interact with and habituate people.  Don’t think I’m gearing up to rage about the erosion of society.  This is an observation on society in flux.  Just as I look backwards via Austen, Tolstoy and Dickens into an imperfect representation of their societies and try to imagine that experience, I look forward to myself growing old in a society that puts an electronic spin on interpersonal dynamics. 

So the Tolstoy loving teen that I was didn’t own a mobile and had limited access to the telephone because there was no call waiting.  Notes were passed, not text messages, and depending on the situation, might be confiscated by adults loitering in my environment.  Letters often took a week to arrive, were written on paper chosen to designate the level of intimacy with and personality of the sender AND the handwriting was as personal as the message inside.  Communication took time, attention to detail and could be attributed to its source.

Today, if you wait 24 hours to answer an emotion wrought text or email, you’re ignoring the sender, rather than giving it the weight you may think it deserves.  The generation growing up with electronic and instant communications has to field and respond at what my teenage self would have thought was an impossible speed.  There will be a trade off for this virtual age, but I believe humanity will still want to belong, will still want authenticity and intimacy in its relationships.  I hope I’m founded in that belief because I think it will be a singular challenge.

                              Unlike our excursions into the past, we won’t have a map.


  1. I think the impact of the speed we have to communicate takes its toll on people. There's starting to be a trend now where people shut off social networking for a week or two at a time to "recharge" because it is that demanding, and there is so much pressure about using the right etiquette (perhaps as much as in Austen's novels, tho evolving at a much more rapid pace) and not alienating the wrong people.

  2. It's not only in social networking where speed is in an issue. In business communications it is no longer a matter of reading a paper copy of a report digesting it, making comments and formulating a reply to be typed up, placed in an envelope that then is taken to a post box. Often if nothing is heard in 24-48 hours the original sender sends an "encouraging" follow up. Given the volume of messages that now flow it is impossible often to keep on top. Prioritising or taking a break never works because folk always feel their communication is the vital one on which the future of the planet depends