We and me

I’ve probably mentioned before that ALA can sometimes be inspiring (or inspiriting, if that’s a word), perhaps not as a result of any given program or social event but through the cumulative effects of seeing a few hundred (or few thousand) people I know, and many thousand active librarians, face-to-face. (Inspiring: It can and does inspire me to keep “doing this stuff.” Inspiriting: It can restore my spirits when they’ve been down.)
It can also be revealing, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Chicago was inspiring and inspiriting, to be sure. I wasn’t actually dispirited before ALA Annual, but found it easier to concentrate on decisions related to the new house than to focus on library-related issues outside of work. That’s still a major focus, but I’m back to paying attention elsewhere…
The revealing part is the theme of the first part of this two-part mini-essay.

We: False universalism or simple elitism?

I’ve ranted before this, here and there, about “we”–with or without the implicit “all”–being used for claims that I don’t consider even remotely universal or opinions that I don’t believe there’s any real consensus about.
“We (all) are (or soon will be) connected to the internet all the time.” “We (all) are growing to prefer reading online rather than in print.” “We (all) use iPhones.”
None of those are literal quotes, although the first one’s very close. I could find hundreds of others (thousands?) with a little literature searching, but this isn’t really aimed at any one person, so I won’t.
I’d thought of these phony or overstated we-isms as false universals, a problem in and of themselves. (Want true universals? We breathe air. We eat food. We need safe drinking water. We will die. I think those about cover it–and if you believe Breatharians, if there are any of those left, even the third is questionable. Then again, if you believe Breatharians, what are you doing at ScienceBlogs?)
I was wrong, at least for some people who are fond of We-isms.
I recognized that during a session at ALA–details unimportant–in which one panelist was spouting We-isms with considerable relish, even after another panelist pointed out that one supposed universalism wasn’t even true for a majority of those present at the session. Nonetheless, We do this and We use that and…
The breakthrough recognition: It’s not false universalism. It’s elitism. “We” really means “the people who matter.”
Doesn’t make it any more right. Does make it a lot more understandable. Without that recognition, I’d have to believe that some We-ists are hard of hearing, hard of understanding or a bit daft: Surely they’re aware that their universal assertions are nowhere near being universal?
But once you substitute “the people who matter” for “we,” it’s all clear. Maybe all the people who matter really are connected 24/7. Maybe all the people who matter do use iPhones.
The trouble with all this, for public librarians at least, is that good libraries serve the whole public–and specifically serve those who “don’t matter,” who aren’t part of the elite, the in crowd, the overprivileged.
Anyway, this should be a useful reminder, for me at least, for the future: When I encounter an absurd We-ism, I won’t assume the speaker’s more ignorant than they would appear to be–I’ll assume they’re elitist.

…and me

The other part of this not-as-brief-as-I’d intended (but, you know, longer essays are The New Black for blogs, right?) has to do with me. Not “me” as short for “the out crowd” or “me” as short for “people like me,” but me–one person.
To wit: If you’re a FriendFeed user who pays particular attention to who is or isn’t subscribing to you, and if you find that I’ve dropped off your subscription list…
It isn’t you. It’s me.
That’s happened once this week. It may happen again. In the particular case, it was somebody I find interesting some of the time–but somebody who Likes, and comments on, a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff that I don’t have time for, but that’s just interesting enough that I spend time checking it out. (I’m not sure why, but skipping over stuff seems to take more time in FriendFeed than it does in Bloglines–or, again, maybe that’s just me.)
Yes, I use Hides, lots of them, but in this case that wasn’t quite enough. There’s another case that’s right on the cusp; I may quietly unsubscribe.
Let me be clear: You’re not doing anything wrong. I don’t believe you should even think about changing the way you use FriendFeed. Because, you know,
It’s not you. It’s me.
That’s not a breakup line. It’s the truth. You could expand that to “I’m too ignorant to set up FriendFeed in such a way that it’s compatible with your use of it–and that’s my problem, not yours.”
Another way to put it: I’m not much for either creating lifestreams or following them. Maybe I shouldn’t be using FriendFeed at all, but I find that it’s useful as a semi-professional conversational medium. When too much lifestream material makes it cumbersome to follow the conversations, I make changes…purely because of the way I use FriendFeed, which may not be how it should be used. (If I’m Breaking The Rules, so be it.)
I don’t know: Maybe FF doesn’t notify people when someone unsubscribes, in which case this isn’t an issue at all. On my part, I’d rather not know, to be honest…and I only scan my subscriber list maybe every three months to see who I should be subscribing to. Which, then, may lead to my resubscribing to someone who I later unsubscribe from…

9 Responses to “We and me”

  1. Oscar Zoalaster Says:

    What the bleep is ‘friendfeed’?

  2. Peter Murray Says:

    /me goes immediately to FriendFeed and breaths a sigh of relief to find that Walt is still subscribed to me. *whew* ;-)
    I was thinking a bit about the universal truths as they relate to technology adoption. It helps to limit scope to the United States, which is a fair thing to do I think given the overwhelming predominance of that user base within the community that ALA members serve. So what are the universal technology adoption truths that we can hang our hat on. I agree that constant internet access, preference for digital over print, and use of iPhones are not universal. Can we safely say that electricity is a universal truth (in the United States)? Telephone? Television?
    I like the distinction that you’ve made between false universalism and elitism. That is a useful frame of reference in as much as it is a check and balance against assumptions I might try to impose on the population I serve. Clearly deeper thought is needed here — thanks for bringing it up.

  3. Angel Says:

    The whole “we-ism” thing is one of the things I have found pretty disgusting about some segments of our profession: the false assumption that everyone will be connected 24/7 on an iPhone (because we all know that is the “cool” device “we” use), and therefore our libraries should be concentrating on “them” in terms of services, sometimes at the expense of more traditional services. Who the hell needs books? But let’s set up another chat reference service no one will use (this one actually comes straight from my own library. Now I have to pray the powers that be don’t read this lol). When you put it in the terms of “the people that matter” does make perfect sense. It is elitist, and I don’t think that has room in our profession. We have to serve everyone, not just “the ones that matter.”
    P.S. Have not quite figured out what FF could do for me. We’ll see.
    Best, and keep on blogging.

  4. Subject/Object Says:

    False and true library universals

    There is one thing I can say about Twitter:  it hooks into everything.  My new work flow is to publish everything small to Twitter–and from there to Facebook and FriendFeed and my blog sidebar–and long form writing to here.  And pictures to…

  5. walt crawford Says:

    Oscar: It’s sort of a “social media aggregator,” which is almost as meaningless as it sounds. You start an account, then decide which of your other online accounts should feed into it–e.g., subject lines of blog posts, but also tweets, possibly Netflix selections, Facebook status updates, etc. Then you subscribe to others whose updates you find interesting, and vice-versa. “Hiding” lets you hide categories that don’t interest you (e.g., last.fm and Netflix selections); your circle broadens because you get stuff from people you’re *not* subscribed to when someone you *are* subscribed to “likes” or comments on the items. The comment streams are what make it work for me: They’re presented as threads and work very well. (Otherwise…well, go try it. Small potatoes compared to Twitter and Facebook, and that may be a good thing.)
    Peter: Electricity and telephones are *nearly* universal, enough so that I wouldn’t argue within the US. (Landline telephones *used to be* nearly universal, but no more.) Television? I’d say most of those without TVs either don’t have residences (and there are a fair number of homeless) or have *decided* not to have TV.
    all: Thanks for the feedback. The “we as elitist” thought really was a revelation, and in the case of one speaker, looking back through earlier notes, some things make a lot more sense.

  6. eddie Says:

    I see what you’re saying about the false universals; that we-isms create an in-group out group dynamic. I’d contend, however, that it’s not necessarily elitist: It depends on whether the in-group is exclusive or inclusive.
    Take your examples of the iPhone and friend feed: One is inclusive in that, given you have web access, you simply choose to join in or not. The other requires you to jump through hoops to get in; you need to buy the hardware.
    Incidentally, I’m thumbing this on a non-i phone. Does that make me more or less in, I wonder?

  7. walt crawford Says:

    Eddie: I guess I’d have to disagree.
    An elite doesn’t necessarily involve costs; it involves choices. Saying “We use FriendFeed” (with the implied “all”) is, in essence, saying “People who count have already signed up for FriendFeed.”
    Sure, if someone says “We drive Bentleys,” it’s blatant elitism (or the mission statement of a Bentley car club, which is OK by me). “We’re on 24/7″ may not be blatant, but it’s still elitism, separating the People Who Count from every body else.
    I suppose “in crowd” is a reasonable alternative to “elite,” but to me it’s much the same thing–drawing a circle with some inside and others outside. And, in presentations, acting as though everybody’s inside that circle–or, rather, everybody who matters.

  8. eddie Says:

    “An elite doesn’t necessarily involve costs, it involves choices.”
    Then I think we do agree, mostly. Cost may be only one of many gatekeepers. Others would be peer acceptance or even the lack of basic amenities.
    Maybe I misunderstood your original comments about ff. The guy at the presentation was surely insensitive and I thought you were comparing that with ff’s openness (relative, as I earlier qualified: much of the planet don’t have internet). I don’t use the service myself. Are they claiming I don’t matter, as the presentation guy was? Rather I thought I could just sign up or out as I wanted, as you seem to be doing.
    I agree we are in a priveleged position to have these choices to make, but would rather others had it too so I think ‘elite’ is a bit strong.
    Also, see your sciBlings’ reaction to the elitism charge from the republicans.

  9. walt crawford Says:

    There may not be serious disagreement here–and I should point out that, in this case, I’m viewing elitism as a negative, not a positive. (There’s a difference between being an elitist and being among the best in your field; it’s an attitudinal thing. If you think having a PhD or driving a Lotus or having an eight-digit net worth makes you more important than those who don’t have or do those things *as a person*–you’re an elitist. The Nobel winner I was privileged to take a Freshman lecture course from at Berkeley, decades ago, was not, as far as I could tell, an elitist: He knew what he’d accomplished but didn’t use it as a basis to regard other people as inferior *people.* He was also one hell of a lecturer, but that’s a different issue.)


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