credit to Anthony K. Tjan | (HBR)
I could not be a bigger proponent of technology. My career has been built mostly around the Internet. My day job as a venture capitalist focuses on innovations in digital media and big data, and new models of business information and community connectivity. Personally, I am virtually “always on” — usually responding to emails if not instantly then within minutes, while in parallel scanning some document or talking a call. I have a Blackberry for production, and a Samsung Galaxy and an iPad for consumption.
But — and you knew there would be a “but” — as we begin 2013, I can’t help feeling that the proliferation of new communication channels and “smart” devices has only further fragmented and strained the flow of real conversations. It has obscured content that is worth consuming. As multi-tasking has morphed into multi-casting — that is, it is now often less about trying to do more at the same time than trying to tell more at the same time — it has all increasingly gotten in the way of what we are trying to optimize, which is connectivity. In fact, it is quite clear that in many instances it has diluted the quality and relevance of our conversations.
About a year ago, I wrote a post on the importance of getting back to real, authentic and live conversations. For relationship building and conflict resolution, emailing, social networking, and texting often just don’t cut it. Speedy, frequent, high-volume communication does not necessarily equate with thoughtful and effective communication. To put a finer point on it, quantity of conversation cannot substitute for quality of conversation. Which, leads me to three resolutions for 2013 that all swim against the mass-connectivity tide:
1. Focus on being present in the moment, not recording it. For many of us it has become an almost instinctual reaction to announce, capture, and share something special. It’s a 24/7 game of one-upmanship. A great meal is food-spotted/photographed, an arrival at an event is announced via Four Square or Twitter, a performance is recorded for YouTube. At a recent Coldplay concert, I witnessed several people fixated on the screens of their smartphones (recording the event) rather than experiencing what was live in front of them. There is a philosophical and psycho-behavioral debate over whether these digital “adds” enhance, detract, or are neutral to an experience. For more special occasions, I am quite sure that they are a net negative to personally appreciating the full experience and being respectful to those around you. At a recent wedding I attended, I asked a guest if she was going to take a moment to stop recording the moment to just live and be present in it. She was briefly taken aback, but then seemed to wonder if she was missing on the collective whole of the event. She was at risk of being, as MIT Professor Sherry Turkle puts it, “alone, together.”
2. Focus on creating a new moment worth commenting on, not commenting on someone else’s. We live in a world where everything is up for comment. But in any open forum or protocol, there is always the danger of veering towards under-appreciation, indifference, and even cynicism. Yes, it’s great that companies now have to face the public wrath of online critics whenever their products or customer service falls short. But many of these critiques are also screaming to be tempered with a modicum of self-moderation to avoid slipping into cynicism and verbal diarrhea. The real focus should be on either being more constructive in commentary, or even better, creating something interesting enough that people feel compelled to critique — good or bad. Yes, the web makes it inviting to comment, but it also makes it easier than ever to be a creator. Write a blog, lead or organize a webinar, produce an online teaching video or podcast — the stakes may feel higher because things are more open than ever for public scrutiny, but for creators with some humility and thick-enough skin, they are also as open as ever for mutual collaboration and positive interactivity.
3. Face real issues and real priorities with real conversations. I am all for more tele-presence and enhanced Skype capabilities, but nothing beats a face-to-face meeting for things that really matter. Digital communications can make us feel like we are acknowledging and working on the situation through email, text, or other electronic means, when so often a coffee, lunch, or live call is the answer. There is a new hierarchy in communication emerging from least to most personal — email, social-network messaging (e.g. Facebook or Twitter), text, handwritten note, phone/Skype conversation, and live in-person meeting. Of course, not all interactions require the richness afforded by a meeting, but a handwritten note, phone call, or coffee, will always carry greater fidelity, signal and weight than bits and bytes. Do a simple audit test of reviewing your past two weeks or month of email chains of discussion — how many of those would have been better done in person?
These resolutions may feel against the grain — maybe even anti-progress. But it’s important, along with embracing the positive, to recognize some of the negative ramifications that come with any innovation. The overall trend for 2013 will be the increasing proliferation of ways to connect digitally. But for all of us, on an individual level, it may be more important to think about how best we can and should be part of contributing more to meaning, experiences, and conversations in our world. We have people encouraging us to move from fast food to slow. Maybe 2013 year is the year to begin a slow conversation movement.