Virtual Barn Raising

Virtual Barn Raising

Technology, the way people use it, feel about it, relate to it, and digest it is something no one is entirely an expert about just yet. I know there are a series of dissertations in the works on subjects like online community and social networks, but for the moment, academics in a position of authority (like Michael Gorman, president-elect of the ALA, for instance) get cited as the ones who would know best.

I’m not the only one to doubt the existence of “Information Overload”, but in seems that lately a lot of well-heeled folks are entering into the IO fray, preaching the inhumanity of the technological universe created for us by the inhuman, cold internet.

I’m responding to another article on this “smog of data” idea that I’ve already taken issue with. There is this strange cognitive dissonance for me in these criticisms.

I had a friend visiting me yesterday from the UK. Part of our conversation (over extremely fresh and extremely tasty beer at a local pub, may I add) revolved around some of the more lame elements we’ve come across in online communities. Among the many interesting and healthy participtants of the internet conversation, there are people in online communities who don’t want to look too long and hard at their “real lives”, and allow a digital version to take precidence. People at their lowest tend to post more often and more extensively, my friend noted. They are more deeply engaged in the online community, they care more about who’s said what, who thinks what, who is reading their posts and who is just skipping over them. They rush to defend their friends; for the healthy and unhealthy there are real emotional crimes that can be committed in text But some are linked to their keyboard in the way that many of us are linked to our families and friends. There’s something a little bit off about it, a bit lame.

Lame or not, the fact that we can have that conversation at all unveils an interesting phenomenon at work here; people with or without any technological ability can forge a real, deeply personal, deeply emotional connections to other people via technology, because they have managed to translate themselves into the language of the medium.

And by the same token, people learn about others through these kinds of interactions. The act of reading becomes the act of reading the body, hearing the voice. Face to face interaction is only meaningful to us because we have learned the language of the spoken word, the language of bodies. What happens when we swim long enough in these technologies to use them to communicate ourselves, and to accept that communication from others?

[David H. Landers’] main concern is that students have replaced face-to-face contact with instant messaging and e-mail. “They’re not going to have the same quality of interpersonal relations that will help them in a work environment,” he argues. He says colleges should encourage students to get involved in community projects where they see what life is like outside of their high-tech campus bubble.

The internet = no interpersonal relations.
The internet = not real.
The internet = a bubble.
The internet = impersonal, cold.
The internet = the absence of community.

What exactly are we constructing here, and whose reality are we not recognizing? Is it still lame to date someone at a distance, to communicate daily through webcams and voiceover IP rather than face to face? Is it lame if this is how you communicate you’re your friends and family? It happens all the time, and no matter how snooty you want to get about it, you can’t deny the firm reality of those people’s emotions. There are real connections being made over hardware and software. Those are real people skills at work, and it’s only getting easier and easier to do.

“Everything is so fast and also a little bit anonymous” with e-mail, [Arthur G. Zajonc] says. “So you have to pause to reflect on who this person is” that will be reading the message and how they might perceive it.

I realize email etiquette may still be a problem for some segments of the population just coming to the email world recently, but for those of us going on 12 or 15 years using email, and with the understanding that digital communication is just another form of language like any other, the concept of digital anonymity is laughable. Stilted email? This is the mark of a person who doesn’t yet speak the language of this technology. It’s the great big lie: on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. The reality is that everyone knows you’re a dog, because we’ve got the webcam images, the IPs, the transcripts, and all the typos to prove it.

[Eric Bende argues that getting offline] actually yields more leisure time, and forces people to forge greater bonds with neighbors because of a greater need for cooperation (such as for the occasional barn raising).

The moment I read the term “barn raising” I immediately thought of the open source movement. Why, just today I was reading about how even Microsoft is jumping on the open source idea: invite the community in, let’s see what kind of barn we can raise. Creating solutions collaboratively is the hallmark of internet community; it’s the preferred way to work for most programmers. None of these people exist anonymously, alone out there on the unmapped internet.

I was reminded also of a recent experience I had; a written test of my programming skills. This idea completely floored me, terrified me in fact, and while terrified on one hand I was very surprised and interested in my own response to it on the other. What was I so worried about? I’m confident in my skills. I knew what they expected me to know. The terrifying part was that I had to sit alone in a room and answer technology questions on paper. This is a completely foreign idea to me. I have never in my life created anything for digital consumption by myself. Not the slightest PHP script, hardly more than a handful of pages of HTML. Not a stitch of CSS. When I am working to raise those kinds of barns, I am always side by side with the people who know better, my friends and colleagues, my internet neighbours. And when my hands grow too weak to hoist, they step in to support me. They help me to plan and to enact. When I need someone just to watch me hammer home that last nail, I even turn to my neighbours for that.

It seems to me that part of this conversation about “information overload” is a sense of the inhumanity, of detachment, of anonymity. My experience of the internet is the precise opposite. It is profoundly human, connected, and personal.

Writer Peg Kerr noted that this month marks the three year anniversary of her online journal:

I started this LiveJournal just over three years ago (April 25, 2002). Now I have friends all over the world. I’ve made 1,634 entries, 3,058 comments, and I’ve received 13,142 comments back.


You’ve all changed my life in wonderful ways. You made me laugh, gotten me furious, and forced me to think about things. You’ve opened my perspective, comforted me, and joined me in celebrating my joys. It’s been a delight to share your friendship. Thank you!

Language is not human. Like the internet, it is a human-made tool we employ to connect with each other. We learn to manage language through our social interactions. How often to talk and how often to listen; we learn when it’s time to shut our doors and get some sleep, and when we need a long walk. When people struggle with what they are calling “information overload”, it seems to me they are really struggling to make sense of this new language.

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