We have embarked on exploded the word “friend” with many new online connotations as well as redefined the word “space” to mean anything we want it to. We have made completely altered the concept of characters (as in 140) and manipulated “a conversation” so much that is almost unrecognizable in some of the ways we use it. In all of this, we are taking things from the physical world and bringing them into the virtual world in order to play around with them. We are taking what is that we know and making it apply to the unknown. This process changes our ideas and expands what is possible. On the whole, I quite like it.
However, going the other way has not had as good of a track record. Trying to take the concepts of networked learning and make them applicable without the online component falls kind of flat. If you are in a room with people and you are not accessing your wider network (or even the internet), those people are the resources you have at your disposal. And to a certain extent, the people in the room will always matter more, even if you do have access to your larger network.
The people in the room are the ones who can literally grab you (and intellectually get hold of you as well) and bring you to where they want you to go. The people in the room get to dictate the protocols, the time spent, the level of awkwardness, and the amount of competition. The people in the room are the ones who will bore and engage, inform or dilute, attack or join in.
And yet, we haven’t figured out a way to unfollow the people in the room. We have created this function perfectly well in the online world: when someone says something that we don’t like or when they stop being relevant to us, we unfollow them. Why is it that I can’t unfollow someone in a meeting? Why is it that I can’t engage with only the people who will push me to think farther and better and ignore the rest of the people that just happen to occupy the same space as I do?
The ultimate unfollow would be at a conference. If we were able to permanently break up into a small group of people that were interested in figuring something out without exposing ourselves to distractions and efforts that don’t lead to further reflection or solution, I think we would be better off for the process. If we were able to unfollow in real life, we would be better equipped to engage in acts of creation and specificity.
Now, I do not mean that we should attempt to only hear the voices that agree with us or have conversations only with our friends. Rather, I would like to have a protocol where I can scoop up all of the conversations that are relevant, both for and against my viewpoint, and just filter out the ones that are clutter. It also isn’t that there is information overload, either. In face to face communication it is very hard for me to get overwhelmed with the amount of stuff being thrown at me. Instead, it is about the amount of time and effort it takes to be mentally present with every possible idea offered within a conference or meeting.
While this may not be a radical notion, I do believe it holds true for me: Some ideas are not worth being present for.
So, I am suggesting a signal of sorts when you would like to unfollow someone in real life. I suggest that we make it something as inoffensive as possible. I suggest that we try to approximate the level of loss that comes from not following someone on twitter anymore (while we may not have the benefit of their witticism anymore, we also don’t have to hear their blather). It isn’t that you need to be “saved” from the situation and you need to have someone come over and take you away from the conversation. I would just like a way to break up with the people in the meeting that are no longer providing value to your thought process.
Something like a reverse handshake, perhaps.
Something that says: “It is no longer nice to meet you.” But, a little less mean.
I believe in the power of good conversation to change practice, and so I guess I have to believe in the opposite as well. The power of bad conversations is ever present and it is how we find ourselves doing things that we aren’t passionate about. It is also how we end up with unfocused and confused workflows. It is how we end up with a lot of regret for the things we can’t get done.
And yet, this sentiment is incredibly selfish. Telling people that they are no longer interesting, engaging or purposeful in our lives is something that isn’t easily done. We will be considered elitist. We will be considered jerks. Indeed, we will be those things.
So, unfollowing is not without a sense of peril in the real world. Being rude, of course, is never the right way to go about engaging with others. The unfollow process, though, is not about being rude. It is about making sure that we are constantly assessing our ability to engage. If we feel as though we can’t be a part of the collaboration as it is currently constituted, we reserve the right to excuse ourselves.
So, the next time that the conversation takes a turn toward distraction or irrelevance, I reserve the right to unfollow you. Without too much absurdity, I will stand up, unshake your hand and leave the conversation behind. I hope that it will be implied that anyone else can come with, and I do not need to be followed to be validated.
This is hard in application, but if enough people adopt the in-person unfollow, the stigma of engaging only in conversations that matter will slowly go away. Or perhaps this idea is just as ridiculous as any other way of bringing what makes sense online and forcing it to make sense in the physical world.