“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
– Marshall McLuhan
We’ve been shaping a lot of tools in the past few years. With every transformation, something is gained, and something else is lost.
Hard to believe, email itself is (depending on who you ask) around 40 years old, and in some ways was the original impetus behind the world wide web itself: before the web, people just emailed attachments. Think about that: mailing lists without any links, a reliance on the user to save and search for them as necessary, and quote them back to other users, or ask someone to forward one. Someone eventually realized this was crazy and a traffic burden, and what was needed was a central repository where people could come and find things at their leisure. Hence usenet, and then the graphical/visual web. Something was gained; documents and lists had a permanent home. Something was lost; the onus was now on the user to check up and make sure they hadn’t missed anything important.
Email has had a long and fruitful history. It’s been gussied up with rich text, moved back to the web from the desktop, and become the most reliable indicator of who you are: you own your email address about as much as your social insurance number. And it’s being slowly replaced by other tools, including the web itself. Instant messaging, for one, trades length of message for convenience: short but fast to compose. Think of how many steps it takes to write an email: start typing a recipient’s name, tab down or click into a subject field, then tab or click down to the body field, compose a message, possibly inserting the cursor after a quoted message or in between the relevant parts. Instant messaging removes as many complexities as it can, so you don’t have to think about anything other than the content itself. Sure, we lose the archiving, the searching, the permanence of the email record; IMs are instantly disposable.
The web itself, the usurper, has also been challenged. Originally a static medium, a one-way publishing enterprise largely informed by the models of traditional print, became more interactive, allowing comments and user-generated content. Search engines began slowly, when it was a challenge to find anything on the web. Now there’s so much, the challenge is to filter out all the irrelevant results and focus on just the good stuff. Early experiments with “push” notifications were rolled into RSS, Really Simple Syndication, a means of “subscribing” to a website and getting notices when things had been added or updated. RSS is functional, but not pretty.
Comments were one of the first forms of social interaction (actually, “guestbooks” were first, but: a) they were implemented badly, and b) no one likes to talk about them), allowing a site owner to solicit and moderate visitor feedback, building a discussion around a topic. Website owners gained not just the feedback from users, but also the traffic from repeat visits, as people had more reason to come back to the same page again and again (pumping up precious page views). Site owners took on the moderating and de-spamming the comments, which for some, became a full-time job.
Comments and search and RSS are now somewhat being replaced with Twitter, Facebook and other social media services. We don’t need to search, or rely on RSS, when we have our own curated networks of friends and associates to help us determine what’s of value. Comments have become replaced with “Like” and “Tweet” (and now Google’s “+1”) buttons, which moved the ownership of comments and interaction from the blog or site owner into the visitor’s social sphere, but at the expense of truncating comments down to 140 characters or less – even just a very binary “yes/no”. What social networks bring, in addition to immediacy, is a form of credibility, a personal reference and authenticity from the people you trust and who trust you. What they lose, beyond control over the discussion, is a perspective outside our own immediate echo chambers. These tools may shape us more than ever.