My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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communication moodiness

I was IMing with a friend this morning when he sent me the following message:

you make these announcements every once in a while–“I deleted all my email!” “I threw away your contact information!” “I stopped reading your blog!”–in such a way as to prove that you are an incredibly wired person who really enjoys messing with the wired world.

At first, i was like hrmfpt! And then i pouted. All because i knew that there was a grain of truth to that. It made me think through a bit of my own behavior. I’ve always loved inserting uncertainty into my wired life. When i first got a pager, i made it very clear both through my behavior and my statements that i was not on beck and call. I leave my mobile on vibrate purposely to ignore any calls that might come through when my purse is across the room. I have email auto-check turned off so that i have to manually ask for more email. I like the fact that my spam filter keeps messing up. I love the fact that if you IM me, it might go to my phone or it might go to my computer and i might or might not get it.

I have information control issues. Worse, i have information overload guilt issues. After opening up my RSS reader to 1600 unread blogs, i just deleted them. I couldn’t deal with the overhead of knowing that i’d never get through all of them. I refuse to check my voice mail because it tells me that there are 14 messages; that’s just far too many. I stopped reading messages that went via YASNS 6 months ago because Orkut overloaded me.

People often ask me what the best way to contact me is. Inside, i laugh. I don’t really want to be easily reachable always. I have communication mood swings. One of my favorite bad habits that most of my friends despise is that i become unwilling to deal with the phone. Thus, when people call me, i answer and hand the phone over to whoever is with me to talk.

It’s weird. I’m obsessively accountable to certain people. But when i don’t feel the internal requirement/responsibility to be accountable to someone, i swing to the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s not really flakiness because if i promise that i will respond, i will. It’s a peculiar lack of willingness to have my energy controlled externally when it doesn’t have to be that way.

I used to beg forgiveness and vow that i’d get better about communications. I stopped three years ago when a friend pointed out that i promised the improvement every six months and continued to get worse. He was right. So i stopped thinking that i’d improve and accepted the fact that i wouldn’t.

Reflecting on my communication quirks makes me realize how much i identify with my cat. [Self-reflective moment brought on by Day 3 of extreme jetlag combined with terrible cold.]

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14 comments to communication moodiness

  • i can’t even describe how much i identify here.

    what sucks is that i’ve lost friends that took my inability to return phonecalls personally. the ones i’ve kept ‘got it’ – it’s just me.

  • I once heard someone describe (roughly) this type of communication style as “wanting to be in touch but out of reach”, which I think is quite a nice turn of phrase.

  • Tony

    Maybe that’s why some of the most sane people I know don’t have cellphones,computers and even tv. Being there is an acknowledged feeling-once sent out the feelings stay(it should) w/ you.

  • Randy Moss

    I had a liberating epiphany about 2 years ago when my best friend reamed me out for not having my cell-phone on and on me at all times so I could be reached. I had a habit of just leaving it in the car. I told him it was for my convininece and not his. That made him think …

  • Tony

    danah, another thought, r u faust?

  • Nancy

    There’s an invitational conference in Seattle next week on Information and the Quality of Life, organized by my friend David Levy at U Wash Information School: http://www.ischool.washington.edu/iql/.

    The theme is information (and tech) overload.
    The internal site, which is not (yet?) available to outsiders, is *very* interesting.

    I notice that a lot of people (not just on the IQL site, but in general) talk about being victimized by info overload and the speedup of life. And many seem to see the solution in somehow getting away from or reducing the volume of info. But if we are overloaded, it is at least partly our own choice. And information and IT *often* makes our lives much *better,* when used wisely. So the question is how to live wisely under these conditions and be intentional about our relationship to info and IT.

    I’ve been tangentially involved in the planning and am part of the post-conference what-comes-next planning — I suggest you monitor the site after the conference to see what emerges, and what gets posted publicly. I may post about it after the conference.

  • Ed

    Danah, it sounds like you need a (non-digital) assistant, someone who can put up a thin veneer of adherence to social protocols while letting you do your thing. That way you have the best of both worlds, the perception that you’re with it all the time without the actual need to really be engaged.

  • Ed – trust me, i’d love someone to help take care of me. Wouldn’t we all? But on a student (non)salary, i’m lucky to make rent. I remember being told that when you had money, you had no time and when you had time, you had no money. Somehow, the academic life seems to encourage no time and no money.

  • Brooke Maury

    “After opening up my RSS reader to 1600 unread blogs, i just deleted them. I couldn’t deal with the overhead of knowing that i’d never get through all of them.”

    So does this mean all of your 208b students get a free pass on our blog assignments?? I posted it danah, you must have deleted it!

  • Brooke – nice try! 208b students luckily are read through “open all tabs” instead of an RSS reader so that i can make certain not to miss a single thing!

  • Join Beyond Northern Iraq discussion.

  • Bravo, danah! As a society, we have become conditioned by the telephone that we have to “answer” our communication devices when they tell us to. (McLuhan explains this phenomenon in the Telephone chapter of Understanding Media.) But that is, to borrow from Lessig, a matter of code. It is a human-designed construct, not a natural law, that telephones, SMSes, email and other such evils that we have perpetrated on ourselves must be served according to their beck and “call” rather than at our convenience.

    Besides, it’s fun to drive other people crazy by letting my phone ring without answering it – fun to watch them restraining themselves from jumping up and answering it themselves, like a scene from Dr. Strangelove! Muhahahah!

  • Danah – very interested in the IQL conference, sounds like a fun one. I hope they don’t have wifi and a million power outlets and powerbooks typing away, just for the sake of a little quiet.

  • yikes… i’m the same way.
    some take it personally, but most realize i’m just weird with communication. i almost always prefer email, and i really hate answering the phone. even if it’s a friend, i like having the buffer zone.