Sunday, 3 August 2008


I've just received an invitation from a UU in Kenya to join an instant community that they are already a member of.  This is actually the second such invitation I've received from a Kenyan Unitarian Universalist in the past couple months.  It reflects growing access to computers and internet connections in Africa and perhaps even growing ownership of computers as they drop in real price and as they become more available.

I'm not sure how many such communities there are on the web.  I'm already a member of three, Skype, SightSpeed, and MySpace, and am not sure I want to start developing this aspect of my connection to the web just now, but the variety of means by which we can link and communicate to each other seems to grow daily.  I suppose that in one sense there is competition between these 'instant connection clubs' to sign up the most members.  At least, one of the promised benefits of joining is the number of potential people to whom one will have instant links.  And they work -- at least from personal experience I can say I located my niece in Australia via MySpace and I use Skype at least weekly to talk with family and friends around the world and I use SightSpeed occasionally with a friend who can't seem to get Skype to work.  Video calls, audio calls, even quick text conversations are great ways to communicate and as computers and connections increase in power and decrease in cost many more of us will be dependent on these to supplement our decreasing ability to drive and fly around the world to see people.

But how do you respond to a plea for greater connectivity from someone you have only met once or maybe may even have never met?  Apparently Barack Obama has over one million such connections -- this is understandable I suppose because he is a major politician.  But for ordinary mortals like me there is the conflicting tension between not wanting to reject or insult (on the one hand) and trying to keep the 'instant' dimension of contacts within a manageable number.  I like the fact that when I am on Skype (for example) I can see when one of my contacts is also online, permitting a very quick 2 minute conversation -- either purely social or for a quick Q&A -- but then I've only 30 something contacts on Skype.  I also understand that when I am logged into Skype, part of my free RAM is used to make the system work and I am willing to pay this price for the benefit I perceive.  Some of these 'instant contact clubs' include the opportunity to be bombarded with ads -- a price I'm reluctant to pay although I do like the ability to contact people easily and cheaply.  But then, email does this well when an instant reply is not needed.  And telephone charges are actually dropping.  The soup of communication methods we now have available perhaps contains too many standards and too many options to use its potential usefulness.  I long for the day when some universal standard (such as obtains with DVDs) permits really easy and cheap communication.

These somewhat random thoughts were sparked by the invitations I received from Kenyan UUs but the bellows feeding oxygen to the sparks was an article in today's online Observer,
that reports a study confirming the widely held belief that the average number of degrees of separation (people connecting you in a chain with a particular stranger) is 6.6.  Microsoft analysed its records of usage (30 Billion electronic messages) and came up with this average length of chain of names connecting any two people.  Add to this the numbers of text messages sent by mobile telephones and countless normal emails, that is one whale of a lot of connection even for the number of folk on this planet.  

So who is doing the work while we are all busy communicating?  

I haven't yet seen any comments clarifying the most common question for instant messages, but I have seen the most common question for mobile phone messages: 'Where are you?'  

Perhaps with computers a more useful question will be: 'What should you be doing now?'

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