Making Time for “Coffee”

I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with Chrome Nanny. For those of you unfamiliar with this horrible brilliant device, it is an extension for chrome that you can program to limit your browsing of certain sites. During the semester, I have it set to only allow me to check Facebook, Reddit, and other similar sites for one or two minutes an hour. When I use up my allotted time, it provides me with this gentle reminder:

Oh so gentle.
Oh so gentle.

When Chrome Nanny reprimands me, I am reminded of the frivolous nature of these sites. Why would I be posting pictures of my dog on Facebook when the article I’m working on remains depressingly unfinished?

Because of that face, obviously. 

The internal dilemma I feel between social media and productivity is nothing new. As Tom Standage notes in Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 years, people felt the same ambivalence towards coffee shops in the seventeenth century. When discussing the initial reception of these caffeine driven hangouts, Standage explains how “[n]ot everyone welcomed the freedom of speech afforded by the new social forum, and some people worried that its compelling, information-rich environment, which provided an endless and addictive stream of trivia, gossip, and falsehood, was distracting people from more productive pursuits” (104).

Get back to work, Theobold!
Get back to work, Theobold!

Over three hundred years later, the feeling that we are wasting our time by engaging in “non-productive” conversations is one that continues to plague us. Indeed, the nagging feeling of squandering valuable time becomes the topic of conversation in an episode of Seinfeld from the mid-1990s.

But really, can’t we have coffee—or facebook conversations—with friends? Is social media merely a distraction? Obviously there are aspects to social media that are unarguably beneficial. As Tom Standage notes, social media has the ability to spread news, spark revolutions, and create a global community. But what about the rest? What about the status updates of mundane daily activities and excessive pictures of food?

Inquiring minds need to know.
Inquiring minds need to know.

Despite the fact that we all may feel compelled to block or unfollow people who are constantly bombarding us with details of their lives, I nonetheless think that the type of connections this level of sharing provides is valuable, and not simply a distraction. Rather, I think social media allows us to talk about the inane details of our lives—to “have coffee”—with our friends and family regardless of the physical distances that separate us. And as Jerry, George, and Elaine remind us, having coffee with your friends may not be such a waste of time after all.

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7 thoughts on “Making Time for “Coffee””

  1. Heather,

    I think Callie’s post last week about demythologizing technology could be helpful with supporting your notion that social media is redefining how we interact with our friends and family because physical proximity, or even a local coffee shop, is not possible. It’s very true, as you’ve mentioned, that most social media sites are ripe with ways to procrastinate, waste time, or simply be idle on an off-day. But I would argue that sometimes social media is the only way to interact with certain people, especially if we befriend other members of an online community who live across the country or perhaps even in another one.

    But video chatting programs like Skype and Google Hangouts are beneficial in a slightly different way, in that the people video chatting could conceivably be having a conversation “over” coffee in their respective homes. Perhaps we could say that these kinds of programs are a new take on coffee houses: virtual ones where ideas can still flow freely.

    1. Skype is so fascinating to me partially because it seems so unfascinating to a lot of people. I remember as a kid watching Pokemon, seeing the video phones they had, and thinking, “One day we will be able to talk and see each other.” And then that happened, and everyone went “eh.” There’s not much to this comment besides “Yes, Skype” but I am definitely interested in talking more about video capabilities and digital conversations.

      1. I have a very similar feeling about Skype, Caitlin—although my experience came from watching video phones on the Jetson’s. But child-me had a different reaction than child-you. I can remember thinking “something like that will NEVER happen.” Now you can not only video chat with people, but you can do it with people on the other side of the world, for FREE. Child-me would die from shock seeing that. It’s really amazing how quickly people can become blase about new technology.

      2. I, too, have a strange fascination with Skype and other video chatting programs, mostly based on how they make me feel scrutinized in a way that I rarely feel during face-to-face conversation. For some reason, I feel a stronger pressure to be performative whilst on video chat than I do in a normal conversation (although teaching is not included here – lord know I camp out for that sometimes).

      3. I absolutely agree with you, Caitlin, Heather, and Chris. As someone who has family and friends abroad, and who has spent significant time abroad myself, Skype has been invaluable to me, but also a source of too too much contemplation.

        In response Heather’s points about productivity as it potentially intersects with Skype: with video-chat, you’re not able to multitask in the same way as you are on the phone, text–I’ve cooked entire meals with my phone tucked against my shoulder, had my mother on speakerphone as I was cleaning house, or carried on text conversations while doing any number of other things simultaneously. Yet, I can’t really do any of that on a Skype video call without seeming like I am not invested in the conversation. Even though I *might* be able to get away with browsing the internet while on video-chat, I don’t because I wouldn’t do so in a face-to-face conversation, and because I ultimately know that the person on the other side of my screen can see my eyes moving elsewhere.

        At the risk of sounding Orwellian, I therefore maintain, as Chris does, that video-chat brings an element of surveillance and scrutiny into play. Even though it is essentially the “same” as a face-to-face conversation, I would not dream of Skyping in public, for example (though maybe that’s just me). And, in regards to scrutiny (and returning to the fear of being caught looking elsewhere), I’ll admit to more often than not find myself getting distracted by the smaller screenshot that shows what my webcam is recording of me. Self-surveillance, egad!

        And don’t even get me started on the Skype chat function that shows you when the other person is writing: Why aren’t they typing? Why are they typing for so long? Why do they keep backspacing? Are they even writing to me or is their computer just registering typing in another window?

        I think maybe I’m overthinking Skype/video-chatting, but I’m glad we’re taking the time to discuss this particular level of the “totem of chat” as it is an interesting one.

  2. Heather,

    I think you get at what was my main takeaway from Standage’s work, which is “Calm down, people.” I certainly think that his points are more complicated than that, and could be complicated even further, but I appreciate the call that we move away from the dislike and fear surrounding Internet use.

    I know that I can procrastinate just as easily without an internet-enabled device in front of me as with one. I also am suspicious of the division between non-productive and productive conversations. An hour-long fb chat with my friend may not produce a response paper, but all my hours can’t be spent on work- or research-related activities. I think that conversation is productive in that it is distinctly not (always) about work.

  3. Heather,

    I’m reminded here of Clay Shirky’s aphorism that “It’s better to do something than to do nothing.” People complain about Facebook, but surely the sorts of sharing and interaction that take place there are better than mindless vegging-out in front of the TV, no?

    Joe

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