More Political Independents Than Ever

The share of people who say they are “independent” — that is, they don’t affiliate with a political party — has climbed to its highest point in 70 years, according to a new survey by the Pew Center for People And The Press.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents self-identified as independents, compared with 33 percent who considered themselves Democrats and 22 percent who identified as Republicans.

Fleeing The Ruins by Flickr User Ed Bierman
"Fleeing The Ruins" by Flickr User Ed Bierman
Of those independents, a third (33 percent) say they are conservative, which is also an increase.

I was recently among a group of people who covered the political spectrum. Out of fifteen or so, perhaps five said they were independents — and of these, three or so said they were really Republicans but did not want to say so.

Is that what’s happening? Or are people really abandoning the parties?

Hawaii Votes By Internet

Last week, Honolulu completed what appears to be the first Internet-only election.

Honolulu Cityline by Flickr user Irargerich
"Honolulu Cityline" by Flickr user Irargerich

In the past, I have taken a very dim view of many election “reforms.” The fundamental idea — that we need to make it easier to vote because people are not taking the time to cast their ballots — seems flawed. People will take the time to do what is a priority for them. For many, voting ranks somewhere below getting the car washed.

To me, that’s wrong, and I do not think policies should be designed around devaluing the vote.

But there’s a point the article makes that makes me think Interent voting may be something whose time has come. Why? It’s cheaper.

Honolulu did not shift to Internet-only voting out of a sense of reformism or do-gooderism, but because they needed to save money:

[T]he Honolulu City Council cut the Neighborhood Commission’s election budget from $220,000 to $180,000. That prompted the agency to shift to all-digital voting for this year’s races. Preliminary calculations show Web voting may cost only $80,000, [a community relations specialist with the city Neighborhood Commission] said.

That’s a significant savings.

Staying Neutral

Strangling Statues by Flickr user victoriapeckham
"Strangling Statues" by Flickr user victoriapeckham

I was talking to a friend the other day about a family event he had to attend. For him, such events are not positive. His family is filled with bickering, infighting, recriminations.

At group events, he dreads the point that always comes, when one family members starts talking trash about another one, and demands some kind of response. You either agree, which allows you to avoid being yelled at for now — but the target of the trash talk gets upset. Or you don’t — in which case the target likes you but the person in your face talking the trash gets hot under the collar.

Over the years, he’s learned a few noncommittal comments that are basically neutral, convey no opinion whatsoever, but allow your conversation partner to believe you are agreeing with them. They are:

  • How about that?
  • I can see your point.
  • You may be right.
  • I’m sorry you feel that way.

I love these.

It got me thinking, though, about just how many people are basically negative. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to put a damper on things when they get going.

I would like to come up with some neutral comments that don’t reinforce the negativity but encourage the person to be a bit more positive.

Maybe that’s too much to ask. Maybe a better goal is to look at myself first, and just make sure I am not inadvertently contributing to general bad Karma.

Why Social Media Is Like The Telephone Circa 1915

telephone by Flickr user Paul Keleher
"telephone" by Flickr user Paul Keleher

I have been riveted by a book called America Calling: A Social History Of The Telephone To 1940 by Claude S. Fischer, a sociologist at my alma mater, UC Berkeley. The book is just what you think – a study of social responses to the rise of the telephone as it went from a new invention to being an everyday appliance. I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

You won’t be shocked to learn that the parallels with current reactions to social media have been uncanny. The book was written in 1992, well before the explosion of communication that typifies today’s world. So it’s not like the book is trying to make such parallels. But they are there everywhere you look.

Just as an example from the very first page of the book: In 1926 the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee discuss the topic “Do modern inventions help or mar character and health?” Among the specific questions the committee proposed were “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” [and] “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”

Just replace “telephone” with “MySpace” or “Facebook” and you see what I mean. The worries of people like Maureen Dowd are nothing new.

Rather than do a whole book report (I’d rather you just buy the book), I thought I would look a little more in detail at one particular facet: how the telephone was sold to America. It is illuminating.

Finding Uses

When it first began to be deployed (1890’s through the turn of the century), telephone companies faced a tough sell. They first had to explain to Americans what need the telephone might fulfill. They had to find uses for it.

From a 1909 Bell System ad:

[The Bell System] had to invent the business uses of the telephone and convince people that they were uses. It had no help along this line. As the uses were created it had to invent multiplied means of satisfying them. It built up the telephone habit in cities like New York and Chicago and then it had to cope satisfactorily with the business conditions it had created.

That reads like the history of Twitter circa 2007-2008. (That “coping” business makes me think of the #failwhale.)

An interesting element of this period was the need to educate users on how to use the telephone. Advertisements included instructions about where to place your mouth when you speak, how loudly to speak, how to place a call, and so forth. Just think, for a parallel, about the copious how-to’s that Facebook deployed when they rolled out their most recent changes.

The Business Case

The first uses imagined were business uses. The telephone would help you make and confirm appointments, save time, and make business more efficient. (Compare this with the early years of faxes and business email – designed to speed business communication.)

Even the personal uses were essentially related to the business of the home. Some ads pitched at wealthy women illustrated how easy it was to order groceries and, for men, how easy it was to call and say you’d be home late from the office.

Social Social Social

In keeping with the all-business vibe, a 1910 ad touted the telephone as a great way to make holiday celebration arrangements more efficiently – noticeably not mentioning anything about giving actual greetings over the phone. But as the decades wore on, things changed. Pretty soon, people were using phones socially. And the telephone companies were catching up.

In 1923, for instance, Southwestern Bell wrote that it had:

decided that it is selling something more vital than distance, speed or accuracy . . . [T]he telephone . . . almost brings [people] face to face. It is the next best thing to personal contact. So the fundamental purpose of the current advertising is to sell the company’s subscribers their voices at their true worth – to help them realize that “Your Voice is You,” . . . to make subscribers think of the telephone whenever they think of distant friends or relatives.

Wow. “Your Voice is You.” Think here about the care with which Facebook treats its users and how strongly they react to changes. “Your Profile is You” could be the new slogan.

Along with this new “sociable” use of the telephone came resistance and a backlash. Early on, people worried that “the telephone permitted inappropriate or dangerous discussions, such as illicit wooing.” (Think about Craigslist and South Carolina here.) Later on, etiquette guides suggested that visiting on the telephone should be “confined to a reasonably short duration of time.”

Noise, Noise, Noise

What may be an even stronger response was to the triviality of sociable telephone conversations and their incessant interruptions of more “reasonable” pursuits. “We are at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone . . . and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure the have the more active do they become in destroying ours,” wrote one professor.

That sounds like one’s uncle turning up his nose at Twitter, if you ask me.

Certainly, the parallels are not exact, but as I think about the arc that social media is following, I can see we are just about at that “sociability” stage. It’s happening gfaster than last century, of course, but people are people – their reaction to new connecting technologies seems quite predictable.

Utilities

If that’s true, then eventually (like the telephone, the automobile and to a lesser extent email), social media will become transparent. We won’t be talking about “what to do with” social media, we will just use it — like we pick up and use the telephone without thinking about it. It’ll be a utility.

In fact, look further back and think about the electrification of America, or the advent of universal indoor plumbing. These novelties are taken for granted too. Utilities.

Go read the book. But first retweet this.

How To Evaluate Online Obligations

My good friend Cindy Cotte Griffiths is a prodigious volunteer and always has been. She’s the leader of a Cub Scout pack, chair of a city commission, active in her church, and in her childrens’ schools. She’s also my partner in the hyperlocal news site, Rockville Central.

Me in Second Life (Bradrourke Dynamo)
Me in Second Life (Bradrourke Dynamo)

The other day Cindy wrote about the pull online commitments can exert, in the face of offline, real world interactions. We seem constantly pulled away from reality to tend to online business. For many, this can be vexing. For volunteers intent on helping those around them, it can be even more of a dilemma.

Cindy has developed some questions she asks herself in evaluating new online obligations, to try to help keep it all in balance:

  • Does the organization have a positive influence on a priority in my life, such as my children?
  • What do I get out of the experience personally?
  • Am I truly helping a broader good or cause?
  • Will the online interaction improve an aspect of my real life community or career?

I really like these.

I Don't Want Your Email Address Unless We're Friends

 

Geek Station by Flickr user striatic
"Geek Station" by Flickr user striatic

This was sort of odd. I met someone recently, and he gave me his card.  I later sat down to start entering the info in my contact files.

 

Usually, in such a situation, I would shoot them an email about how nice it was to meet them, etc.

As I was processing the info, I realized that I didn’t want to do that so much. I would much rather friend them on Facebook and add them to my social network. This would allow me to keep in touch with them much better.

Just having their email address would not insure any connection, unless I chose to put it on my “to do” list. On the other hand, plugging them into my social network created not only a connection but also insured that there would be ongoing interactions, without increased friction.

So I sent them a friend request.

But I wondered: Have I just reached a tipping point with email? Did something else just eclipse it?

It’s one thing to write and theorize about this stuff, but I put much more stock in my actual behavior. I try to observe what I do on the natural. When I actually change how I approach things, without thinking it through ahead of time — well, then there may be some real change afoot. Because, much as I like to talk about all this new shiny tech stuff, in the end I am quite slow to change my default behaviors.

I think my default behavior may have just changed.

Interesting.