After the questions about gaming, the thing I’m asked about the most these days is how I balance work, home, and the crazy speed of the online world. For most of my professional career, the line between work and personal has been blurred, making it difficult to tell where one starts and the other ends. That wasn’t a new phenomenon (even for me, as this was true when I worked in a bookstore and a record store), but it’s been interesting to watch that line blur for librarians — and now the general public — around the internet. I think it’s pretty rare to watch the kind of shift we’ve all gone through during the last ten years (see Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody), and I’m certainly grateful to be observing it firsthand.
So it’s natural to feel overwhelmed — everyone does at some point. Make that “many points.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — the key is to let go of the guilt and recognize that you can find a balance for any given moment, as long as you acknowledge that this balance will be cyclical. Sometimes you’ll have more time to devote to playing with new tools online. Sometimes you’ll need to concentrate more on things that are clearly “work.” Sometimes you’ll find a happy medium. But whatever point you’re at will change, and you need to watch for the change points and sometimes even force them (if you’re working too much or have been away from “playing” for too long).
It’s easy to forget this or get snowed under one of the cycles and lose the long view, so I thought I’d share some of the things I do in order to use technology to help maintain that balance, especially with summer coming up for those of us in the U.S. The caveat here is that I’m lucky enough to have the means to do some of these things, as well the willingness to deal with pushed information. Your mileage may vary, and I’m not suggesting that each of these methods will work for everyone, but maybe it will help you think about how you can take more control of your information flow. I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about using RSS readers to track sites and how I’ve been using Google Gears to access mine even when I’m not online. Here are a few other recent things I’ve been doing.
I know some people have given up on Facebook, either because they don’t like it, they don’t have time for it, or they’ve moved their presence to Twitter, but I’m still enjoying the social connections facilitated by the site. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of friends on FB (ones from “real” life and ones I’ve met through the site who are just as “real”), and I truly appreciate the pace of the information flow there.
For me, the LSW Chat Room and Twitter can be overwhelming because the pace is so fast and I either can’t keep up or can’t reply fast enough. It’s great that these formats work well for others, but I’m learning that I prefer slower updates at this point in my work/personal life. More power to the people who can keep up with these sites, but I’m a casual participant at best in them, and I’m okay with that, at least for now.
Lately, I haven’t had as much time to play in Facebook with applications, Scramble, pages, etc., but I really appreciate the short updates on what my friends are doing. For many of those people, I’ve set up my preferences in Facebook Mobile to send those updates as texts to my phone because I don’t want to miss when they change their status. It’s a passive way to have information pushed at me when I don’t have time to manually check the site. I can do this because I have an unlimited texting plan, but then I also use SMS as one of my top communication tools. In fact, it’s probably second behind face-to-face contact.
So tip number one is to get an unlimited texting plan if you can afford it and have your friends’ information pushed to you through texts. At Sprint, unlimited texting is absurdly cheap, something like $20/month for everyone on the plan. Plus, then you can text Google, Amazon, and other services, as well as your friends and family. I realize not everyone can afford that, but if you can, it’s really worth it.
I’ve already mentioned that I have trouble keeping up with Twitter, but that doesn’t mean I don’t use it or enjoy it. When I have time, I access the service using Twhirl. Even though you have to download the client, it makes it *much* easier to track conversations, reply, direct message, and do other things. It’s definitely my preferred method for real-time interaction with Twitter.
But it can be distracting, like trying to work in a room full of your friends who are having interesting conversations, so at best, I mostly just watch the conversations, the way I read blogs. Sometimes I have time to also participate, but usually when I can give some partial attention to Twitter, it’s to read and keep up with what my friends are talking about. I have very few friends on the service who only post status updates; the majority of people I know there are having conversations, so I don’t have tweets sent to my phone, as it would be too overwhelming. The one exception to this is during conferences, as those are times when Twitter has a more immediate relevance for me, because it facilitates face-to-face interaction and tells me which are the hot sessions.
I’ve been testing these new social aggregators because I really need a good one to help me track my friends on all of these various services (versus my news aggregator, which tracks my information feeds). The more services I’m on, the more I wish these aggregators would get a move on already. I’ve experimented with a few of them and have decided that none yet meets my needs. I really like SocialThing because my friends don’t have to be on the service for me to see their updates. ST imports my existing friends from a few services and displays them in a stream, combining Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter. The site is still in beta, but it doesn’t track *enough* services for it to be my only source. I can’t add a blog feed for a friend, and I can’t link directly to a Facebook friend’s wall or my inbox to reply to one person. However, on days I can’t lurk on Twhirl, catching up with a quick scan of SocialThing once or twice a day has been invaluable in keeping me in touch with what my friends are doing and saying.
So I’ve also been playing with FriendFeed, but like Goldilocks, it’s not quite right either, mainly because your friends have to already use the service in order for you to see their updates. Unlike SocialThing, FriendFeed relies on the user to enter all of her accounts into a profile that others can then subscribe to within the site. But most of my friends don’t have profiles there, so while FF supports many more social networks than ST, it’s less useful in the long run because I’m missing most of my friends’ updates.
I’ve decided I need the automatic import of SocialThing (as well as the flow of it) with the expansiveness of FriendFeed in a desktop client like Twhirl. I would prefer a tool that lets me access my socialstream on the web, via a client, or on my cell phone, letting me choose which method works best for me at any particular moment, but right now I’ll take whatever I can get. I thought Mugshot might be it, but I couldn’t get it to work properly (it wouldn’t show updates from my friends). I don’t think we’re far off from the first really useful social aggregator, but it can’t get here soon enough.
I want to stress again that if you can take advantage of having your updates from your friends lifestreamed to your phone via text messages, it will help you feel more connected to them and remove some of that guilt of not checking sites manually. But I want to stress just as equally that you should not let that stream take over your “real” life. I’m always shocked to hear that someone won’t buy a cell phone because they don’t want to always be answering it or that they don’t want to always be connected.
People assume that I’m always on my cell phone and at times I am. But there are just as many times I’m not, and I don’t let it dictate my behavior. If I don’t recognize the phone number of a calller or if I don’t feel like it at that particular moment, I don’t answer the phone. And just because my phone pulls in new email every hour doesn’t mean I actually check it every hour. In fact, I really only check it when I’m waiting for an elevator at work (which actually happens quite a bit), not needed for the current discussion in a meeting, standing in line at a store, riding on the bus, or some other situation of my choosing.
So yes, I get a lot of use out of my phone to help me keep up, but I’m also good about ignoring it, especially if I’m out with friends or doing other things. I do think this is a learned behavior, one that we need to teach our kids, and we need to be good role models for this. Being connected but offline requires skill, just like being online but disconnected does (if you’re doing this, you know what I mean). If technology is making you feel guilty, examine the sites you use to see if there are alternative ways to access certain pieces of them and figure out if they might work better for you. The future of the interwebs is in shifting services to where the user is instead of forcing them to come to the services. Take advantage of that and let go of the guilt that you can’t digest everything (another skill we need to learn and teach others). As I said at the Computers in Libraries conference last month, do you feel guilty that you don’t read every book that comes into your library? Disappointed maybe, but I’ll bet you don’t feel guilty.
So those are a few of my quick thoughts about all of this. I’d love to hear how you’re using some of the new sites and tools to find some balance.