There’s no better place to study social conditioning and then come up with some quick generalizations about human nature than New York. I just came back from a business trip, and one night after work I hung out at the Ava Lounge in midtown, with a group of friends one could consider the quintessential “always-on” Manhattan demographic: a lawyer, a banker, a reporter, a marketer.
Not surprisingly, several times during an animated evening someone in the group pulled out their Blackberry (the iPhone hasn’t made it to NY yet, I did not spot a single one), which gave all others, in a Pavlovian reflex, the OK to check emails as well. The ritual, accompanied by a not even awkward sudden silence, lasted for about three minutes, before everyone focused again on the group and continued the conversation. A secret Blackberry-quette consensus seemed to exist, approving of the appropriateness of this interruption and also strangely sensing its right timing, both in terms of the intervals and the duration of the break. The ritual was repeated again and again over the course of the night.
I’ve heard a theory that in-person conversations, either one-on-one or within groups, naturally die off after approximately seven minutes. Why? Because TV commercial breaks happen at roughly that interval; and researchers assume a causal relationship between their duration and the impact they have on what people in the US consider the natural length of a conversation. That was yesterday. “The vernacular has changed!” writes the Thingelstad blog, ”Even the couple of people with non-Blackberry Blackberry’s like Treos and Windows Mobile devices are enjoying their Blackberry Break. I wonder if we’ll be taking iPhone Breaks, or just an iBreak.”
“Intermittent email access” this is, indeed, leading to “intermittent conversations” or, to be more precise, multiple simultaneous conversations with different parties in different communication realities. Yet this is not meant to be a fatalist’s take on our culture’s decline. To misquote Steven Johnson: “Not everything bad is bad for you.” In our case, the Blackberry breaks marked a welcome break in the conversation, a pause and an opportunity to meditate, recharge, and come up with new topics for the next stage until the next Blackberry break. The breaks allowed for a better flow of the conversation, and they made us, in fact, more social.
Blackberries enable us to expand the social space of a conversation in almost real-time. We know that, enabled by technologies such as email, IM, SMS, or video-stream, others can virtually join a conversation, but it is riveting to see that this place-shifting effect also has an effect on our design and perception of time as well as the way we conduct our in-world, in-person meetings. The “conversation on the side” has become a virtual reality extension that is far more subtle than Second Life avatars.
On our night out, a friend of a friend, who had just emailed, was introduced via Blackberry and became part of our conversation. In the end, one of my friends got a date with him – in the real world, next Thursday. Thanks to BlackBerry, the matchmaker. What you get is not necessarily what you see but there has never been a better time to meet (with) people.