Plus ça change

Holiday weekends, especially the ones that bracket the summer months, tend to be stress tests for the tech media. With the proliferation of smart phones, social media aggregators, and of course the Twitter clonestakes, it’s now trivial to get a snapshot of what is going on throughout the “time off.”

Is nothing going on? Has the TechMeme conversation dried up, as Robert Scoble entertainingly baits? Are FriendFeed conversations more viral and link-inducing? Of course. There’s nothing like a few days off to cull the herd and make it achingly clear how parochial the “news” can become. But let’s use the quiet after the cherry bombs subside to measure how far or not we’ve come.

A year ago, we stood on line for the iPhone. Google Reader ruled the roost, the inheritor of the crest of the RSS wave where mainstream and insurgent media stood side by side and worked together to suck most of our online time away. We and our friends were complaining of information overload, the networks were complaining of YouTube sucking away their audiences, and the TechMeme talk was, well, about Scoble’s post on being a month into Facebook and Twitter v. Pownce and Hugh Macleod on why the A-List is dead.

Plus ça change. RSS becomes Twitter, Twitter breaks, Facebook becomes FriendFeed, Twitter breaks, Pownce becomes, Twitter breaks. Or as Scoble puts it, Twitter continues to suck less. No matter what the names of the guilty, our technology still keeps pushing at this problem of how to get the most valuable the quickest.

Notice I say valuable, not entertaining, not disruptive, not enterprise grade, not actionable, not even useful. Valuable to who? Someone whose judgment I respect, most often. Whether by force of words, or by element of surprise, or wit, or poetry, somehow the value cuts through the clutter more often than not. Over time, we build up confidence in these people, streams, and services. No wonder we take it so personally when they break.

Our language betrays our fear that this is all worthless, this pursuit of technology at all costs. We deride these tools as toys, not meant for real work or study. We talk of playing with this program, that service. We create lists to assign ranking and therefore credibility to these ephemeral “products”, argue about business models to justify the time and attention paid as though we better hurry up before the teacher gets back and grades us. In a world of options, we complain about violations of rules that haven’t been set yet.

Scoble’s genius is in letting us see ourselves in him. An entertainer in the purest sense of the word, he is brave enough to make mistakes as fast as he possibly can, so that we can synthesize that experience without having to admit we don’t know what we’re doing either. He asks the stupid questions for us. What happens to this thing when you have 2,000 friends. OK, 20,000. OK, 200,000. But for each us, he is one friend we can count on.

Of course, FriendFeed often feels more like Ex-FriendFeed as we struggle to find our bearings in this week’s model. Voices we’ve come to respect suddenly sour with competitive bile, others we long ago discounted suddenly start making sense again. We can explain away this volatility as the cost of the ease of entry to the conversation, the loss of the comfort of gatekeepers, the endowing of tenure as a member of the real media. It’s tough keeping a scorecard when we don’t even know what game we’re playing.

But over time the true spirits emerge. During the combat, we assign attributes to our opponents that reflect what we want to think about ourselves. Arrogant? We want ourselves to be fair, open to criticism, relaxed in our respect for others. Elitist? Obsessive? Dismissive? Intellectual? Stupid? You do the math.

Once the battle is done, we like to sit around the campfire and tell stories on ourselves, remembering this slight and that slip on this or that banana. All the serious anger and desperate struggle fades and is replaced by the recognition of our pettiness in others’ actions. Can we do better the next time? Chuckling, we doubt it, but somehow we grow up a little more each time.

A year ago, Scoble said this: “Anyway, I still like Twitter the best. Why?” Lightweight, the first thing on his cell phone, does only one thing. Today, it’s FriendFeed and Twitter “where the audience that I really care about is hanging out.” And he won’t be hanging out on line for the new iPhone: “But, waiting in line for an Apple product is glorious, even if it is idiotic. It’s certainly one way to get on Techmeme without writing a blog.” Plus ça change!