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Monday, October 20, 2008

Joseph is online

(A blog I wrote a couple of days ago, and am posting now to celebrate our reconnection to the www this morning. Our new fibre modem has resulted in our actual (vs. advertised) download speed quadrupling to 24mbps, the fastest domestic connection I've had yet :-)




It's several years now since I decided to actively create an online presence. For a long time it was limited to my website, TameGoesWild, and this blog, The Daily Mumble. Not that many people knew about it, and I rarely talked about it. I seldom posted any personal stuff, fearful of criticism from the People Out There. I can remember trying to keep it a secret in my first year at uni, such was the embarrassment I felt when real-life friends referred to something I'd written.

The last 18 months has seen a huge shift in my attitude towards my online presence. As a part of the process of learning to trust my own judgement, and to not be hurt by the subjective opinions of others, I deliberately chose to write about things that mattered the most to me, such as the spiritual path I began to travel down last year. I remember at the time debating whether or not to mention the name Wayne Dyer, for fear of people accusing me of being brain washed by some American celebrity doctor - a fear I can't help but laugh at now, given just how much I have been helped by his [audio]books. I still regularly dip into his take on the Tao, and often find that the one verse (out of 81) that he is focusing on is the exact one I need to hear.

I think the next step for me was signing up with Facebook, something I had resisted for some time. I'd tried mySpace and generally found it to be a complete waste of time ...and I must admit that Facebook didn't do much for me at first either. Now however, it plays an important part in creating and maintaining my sense of place in the world. Regular updates on my friends' activities gives me context. Living here in Tokyo with access to very few real-life friends would be much harder without my virtual (usually passive) participation in the lives of others.

Recently I've been delighted by a spate of photo uploads by my friends from Camp Jened (New York) where I worked in 1997. Those were pre-email days for ordinary folks like us, but 11 years on Facebook has enabled us to recreate that community, to share our happy memories. This has promted me to re-evaluate the part that that experience played in making me who I am today, something I doubt I'd be able to do if working from my own foggy memories alone.

Then there's Twitter. I forget when I signed up, sometime earlier this year. At the time I didn't quite realise just what an impact this would have on me. For those who aren't familiar with it, it's basically a tool for micro-blogging, any one post ('tweet') having a limit of 140 characters (such as the posts top-right of the Mumble. There's a great demo video on YouTube called 'Twitter in Plain English'). Historically, the majority of users have been those into all things techy / internetty, but recent months have seen it move into the mainstream. It's a powerful dissemination tool - the Obama campaign team caught onto this pretty early on and have used it to great effect.

But of course, without an audience, Twitter serves little purpose as a broadcast platform. Personally, I only know a handful of people who use it, and thus initially wasn't all that inspired. But then I discovered Twitterific. This desktop app takes my Twitter posts and send them to Skype, where they become my status message, visible to all of my contacts.

...That's was all well and good, but still, Skype isn't exactly an everyday app for most users.

The breakthrough came with the Twitter app for Facebook. This takes your Twitter status and posts it to Facebook, thus making it visible to all your Facebook friends. So that's one message posted in Twitterific being sent to Twitter, Skype, Facebook, Friendfeed, and any web-page you have control over (such as TDM).

But what next? It's all a bit one-way.

Well it was, until the release of the new Facebook interface a few weeks back. What seemed like just another makeover has actually begun to fundamentally change my interaction with others. Unlike before, it is now incredibly easy to post comments on Facebook status messages. Thus, I can post reactions to friends' daily doings with one tap of the screen, and of course they can do the same with me - and do. Suddenly, one-way broadcasting has become two-way communication.

There's one final piece to the online presence jigsaw though - the iPhone (oh cripes here he goes again...). The new iPhone Facebook app is bloomin fantastic. It enables the user to have easy access to their network of friends wherever they are, to react to messages on-the-road almost in real time (depending on how often they're bored on the train) Couple that with the easy posting of messages and photos to Twitter (using mobile Twitterific) and the publishing of (line-break heavy) blogs via email (which are then automatically reposted on Facebook), and your online-presence becomes an extension of your real life interactions.




I'm sure this all sounds like a complete nightmare to some people. Not only the idea of publishing your every action online, but also the idea of your friends being bombarded by numerous 140-character messages describing tonight's pumpkin soup (I just remind myself that they can simply unsubscribe from your updates if they wish to)

I'm fascinated by just how much this has all come to mean to me. I guess in my current circumstances it's not surprising that I am seeking to maintain established (distant) friendships, to reach out to as many people as I can from my relative isolation. It's a bit of a lifeline really.

I'm also interested in how our shared online presence impacts upon our real-life relationships. So far, I've found it to have an immensely positive effect. On seeing friends, one can quickly move past initial catch ups, and get to the important stuff, or explore areas of life that might usually be hidden due to social norms. The Internet offers us the freedom to express ourselves in ways that might be frowned upon in real-life, thus we can discover shared interests that might otherwise never be discovered. I can think of several real-life relationships whose foundations are reinforced to a considerable extent by the things that I have learnt about them online.

An example of a relationship strengthened by an online presence could be that of the friendship I share with an ex-coursemate who is now working in a remote part of southern Japan. They often blog about their experiences, the challenges they encounter, the happy successes they enjoy. We were never particularly close at uni (although I always liked and respected them), but reading their blog fills me with admiration for what they are doing, and makes me feel enriched by the remote friendship I share with them. It encourages me to send good wishes their way, and to want to offer assistance to them should they ever need it.

Having said that, in the long term I'm not sure how much of a difference it will make. If I imagine myself meeting offline coursemates after a prolonged period of no contact, the feelings are similar to those connected with meeting my online friends. This leads me to think that perhaps ultimately, online communication can never have the same kind of impact upon relationships that even limited offline interactions can have. This I find quietly reassuring, as much as I love the online world, I know that ultimately it's what I do in real life that matters.

After all, no amount of Status Updates will get the washing up done before *Twinkle* arrives home.

Tattaa.

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