Inserting Computers Into Polite Conversation
July 10, 2008
Not too long ago, most people I knew continued to harbor a certain social prejudice well after the major social prejudices had fallen out of favor among the thinking set. This prejudice was not against a person, or a stereotype. It was against the computer.
No one ever spoke openly of this prejudice. It was transmitted subtly: a gentle roll of the eyes when someone cautiously suggested that a quick Google search might resolve the conversational impasse; a derisive snort when the token geek in the room offered to show the group what he or she was working on. When a friend said in mixed company that her local movie theater used to project video game play on the big screen for public viewing, there was an unmistakable ‘only in Maine’ undercurrent to the response.
Those of us who were less prejudiced almost unconsciously learned to suppress our impulses to introduce a computer into good old human interaction. With labels like “video game addict”, “internet addict”, and “geek” with a “dork” intonation floating around, it was best to keep demonstrations of the non-physical world to oneself.
(This unspoken rule had one exception: The showing of one’s digital photos on one’s computer with everyone gathered around. A descendant of slide carousels and photo albums. Here, eyerolls meant that the photographer took twice what they would have taken on film and edited nothing.)
I didn’t feel the oppression, as I had internalized the prejudice. There’s one keyboard, one screen, and one pointing device. Computer use is individual by design. Look inside a cafe or office and you get the idea.* It followed that introducing such a private physical relationship into mixed company would be considered unseemly.
About three years ago, however, my unconscious attitudes surfaced and changed. Martin Wattenberg came to MIT to talk about “The Social Life of Visualizations.” He focused on how people socialize around visualizations of data, the most fun example being his NameVoyager, which lets people enter a name and see a graph of its popularity over time:
When we launched the NameVoyager, we expected that it would be of interest to expectant parents… What we did not expect was that it became popular even among people with no interest in children. The site has received millions of visits since launch, and has been the subject of thousands of blog posts and online conversations. The activity around this visualization was one of the inspirations for my current research focus on the social aspects of data visualization and analysis.
Martin showed several other examples of how data visualizations inspire (mostly online) sociality, and how well-designed data visualizations inspired people to interact more deeply with the data in the process of interacting with each other.
I was totally with him on this. Soon after, I was with a pregnant friend, and she let me pull up the NameVoyager on her computer. We had a ball looking up names of everyone we knew and every name she had considered for the baby. With Martin’s emphasis on digital sociality fresh in my mind, I became acutely aware of my own different but related assumption that computers and people shouldn’t mix in physically social space. Yet here we were having so much fun. I began to feel a sort of defiant validation… why NOT bring computers into conversation?
My new liberation was not confined to displays of data; it was about Web surfing in general. In my self-proclaimed role as an avid media curator, I find all sorts of cool stuff online. And since my personal breakthrough, I unapologetically pull this stuff up on the nearest web-enabled computer when the conversation leads me there. I call this social surfing, not to be confused with the Web 2.0 version that assumes people are alone in their physical space and socializing only online.
As you can see from the photo, I am serious about this. I even like to think I’m particularly good at it. Usually I show the coolest new thing I’ve found. But there are some classics as well, which I especially enjoy showing to people who are easily amazed by the Web. These include:
- Searching for names on NameVoyager
- Laughing at this episode of Creature Comforts
- Watching videos on Current.com and other online video sites
- Testing out the accuracy of Music Map (and learning people’s music tastes in the process)
- Visiting I Can Has Cheezburger (and learning people’s sense of humor in the process)
- Digging around flickr
- Inviting song requests with Seeqpod open
- Playing with KnickerPicker (and learning people’s taste in bodies and underwear in the process)
- Looking for people in Google Street View
My enduring takeaway from Martin’s talk became much broader than he intended. But I do have him to thank for it.
*Now, of course, people are often very social online. Yet even online socializing has experienced prejudice, that of being viewed as less authentic — or simply less social — than in-person interaction.