The Nature of Personal Relationships in the Connected World

In the car yesterday, I was listening to a track by my favourite band, Rush, which set me thinking about how personalised relationships operate in the connected world. The track in question was “Limelight”, a song which deals with issues around the difficulties of fame and the fact that “famous” people are often seen as public property by their fans. The lyrics, as with most of Rush’s songs were written by Neil Peart, who was immortalised in Jack Black’s film “School of Rock” as “the world’s greatest drummer”. Peart’s lyrics are one of the key reasons I like the band so much, some people think they are pretentious, I think they are often perceptive. “Limelight” is an early manifestation of Peart’s thoughts on the contradictions of him having chosen a career which has made him well-known and sought out, while being an intensely shy person who does not welcome intrusion into his private life. In recent years, Peart has developed a second career as a moderately successful travel writer (see http://www.neilpeart.net/), and his books have given him the opportunity to expound on these contradictions, as he eschews the rock star lifestyle by travelling between gigs with his close friends on a motorcycle, documenting the people and countryside as he goes. Even on stage, he hides behind his drum kit, observing individual audience members, and saving up thoughts about them for his journal.

One of Neil Peart’s complaints, referenced in “Limelight” and elsewhere in his writings, is that fans think they have an open invitation to intrude in the star’s life. And his books describe how he has often responded to the question “Are you Neil Peart”, with the response, “You, know people are always asking me that. I wonder if people ask him if he’s me”.  The problem with these kinds of relationship is that they are one-way. The fan thinks (often mistakenly) that they know everything about the star, while the star knows nothing about the fan, but is expected to enter into an instant rapport with them, when accosted unexpectedly. As Peart says in “Limelight”;  “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend”.

That latter line, in particular, led to think about the modern connected world and whether connectivity is changing the nature of such relationships. It could be that it’s different for “celebrities”, even the well-documented efforts of the likes of Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross to use tools such as Twitter to communicate with their audiences are unlikely to result in them getting to know everybody who wants to connect with them. But, for the rest of us, with a more limited range of contacts, perhaps social networking tools are indeed changing the way we interact. Twitter, for instance, has been described as the “Watercooler for people who work online”. There are those who deride the trivial chatter which goes on through the likes of Twitter, but for many people, myself included, the essential nuggets of professionally useful information which they derive through Twitter, are often all the more legitimate when coming from someone , whose likes and dislikes you know something about, although you may never have met them in the flesh, and with whom you may have exchanged some idle, Twitter-delivered, banter.

I have recently engaged in several discussions about the word “geek”, a former playground insult, which seems increasingly to have been reclaimed and made into a badge of honour. No longer is the geek the teenage boy sitting in his room refusing to come out until he’s finished that last bit of programming. These days, the geeks have the tools to communication in the modern world, and, as we all know, often the skills to become very succcessful in the modern economy.

Several outposts of the “old media” infrastructure have generated heat recently by attacking online social networks as damaging to personal relationships. Many of us feel this to be akin to the last thrashing of the dying dinosaurs. The reality of modern online social networking, is that it often enhances personal relationships. I have a number of examples of interactions through Twitter which have led to face-to-face meetings and the beginnings of mutually beneficial professional relationships, which would definitely not have happened without Twitter. On the other hand, brief initial face-to-face meetings have also subsequently led to a more substantial relationship through later online interactions.

I contend therefore, that the ability to get to know someone via an online social network, before ever meeting them face-to-face, is an immensely beneficial aspect of modern technologies. And, just maybe, it may allow us to break down barriers which prevent us from treating “a stranger as a long-awaited friend”.

Do I need an iPhone

I need some help deciding what to do about my phone situation. Can people of the interweb solve my dilemma for me.

I have two phones, a work and a personal one. The work one is a BlackBerry Bold, and I am very happy with that. It does all sorts of wizzy things, has 3G and wifi (unlike most BlackBerrys), and is brilliant for sorting out email on the move. The one down-side is the pretty poor 2MP camera.

Until very recently, my personal phone was a BlackBerry Curve. To be honest, I was talked into getting this by an over-zealous salesman, I have never used its email function, and, without 3G or Wifi, I found it pretty limited. The only real advantage was being able to text quickly using the QWERTY keyboard. So I was quite happy recently when I was given a discarded Nokia N95, which I could immediately see was a much better prospect than the BB Curve, particularly as it has 3G and Wifi and is capable of playing BBC iPlayer content (in theory, I haven’t got this to work yet), watching TV streamed from my Slingbox (this does work very well and has allowed me to catch some crucial bits of the West Indies v England cricket test series while on the move), streaming live radio from BBC stations and direct downloading podcasts. A key thing which attracted me to the N95 was the possibility of having a half decent (5MP) camera in my pocket with the ability to upload photos directly, via Wifi or 3G, to Flickr, Twitpic or elsewhere.

And so, just as I am getting used to my new toy, and liking it (except for the frustration of having to relearn texting from a normal phone keypad), a spanner in the works. I learn that I am now eligble for a “free” upgrade to an iPhone.

So, do I abandon my new toy and replace it with an iPhone? I am liking the N95, and reluctant to give it up. But I know lots of people with iPhones and have coveted one from afar, and not so far, for a while. BUT, the iPhone’s camera is not great; there is, as yet, no client for the Slingbox on the iPhone, and, from what I can gather, listening to streaming radio may not be so easy as it is on the N95 (which also has a built in FM radio for non web listening).

What other reasons might there be for me to abandon my N95 in favour of an iPhone, other than that the latter looks nice, and has outstanding design principles? The poor iPhone camera and lack of Slingbox client are the factors which are driving my reluctance at the moment. The latter should be addressed shortly, but I don’t think the camera can be solved, and I really like the idea of not needing a separate camera and being able directly to upload decent quality photos.

So please help me make a decision. And if you are advocating the iPhone, please give me some killer reasons.

Great Expectations in a Gents Toilet

OK, I should have taken photographs to illustrate this post; but it is related to a gents toilet and I am nervous about photography in a toilet, it can get you into all sorts of trouble, or so I believe, I don’t have any experience to call on.

Today I was at a meeting in Barnsley Council’s shiny new offices, all steel and glass, and a prominent sign of the Council’s confidence in the future of a town which has gone through some pretty tough times; and the ubiquitous glass means that the Council Tax payer can see pretty much all of what is being done in their name and with their money.

And so, I needed to visit the Gents. I walked in, and did a double take – no urinals. I walked back out and checked the sign on the door. It wouldn’t have been the first time I had mistakenly wandered into the Ladies toilet in a strange building. But, no, it was definitely the Gents. So I walked back in, went into a stall and did what I needed to do.

Then, as I was washing my hands, my eye was caught by a sign on the wall which read thus:

“If anything in this toilet fails to meet your expectations, please let us know”.

Now my expectation was that there should be urinals in a Gents toilet. There were none. It had failed to meet my expectations. Should I have let somebody know about this? Perhaps not, but it seemed I was being asked to comment, so I am doing so here.

Nice building though, well done Barnsley Council, even though we couldn’t manage to close the blind when the blinding sun shone in on our meeting.