Friday, January 14, 2011

Where Is the Human Touch?

I usually write posts on this blog about customers or business in general but today I'm going to be self-indulgent.  Refill your coffee cup and settle in.  This is long.

How many times have you heard an acquaintance or colleague bemoan the lack of courtesy that used to be so common?  It's in every venue.  Some blogs I read describe  kids backtalking teachers - threatening, even, in some cases.  Reality TV has encouraged confrontation rather than conversation.  The immediacy of blogging has generated quick responses.  I work in a medium where every word and every image carries some subconscious meaning.  It's important to choose carefully not just the words you use, but when to use them.  Even whether to use them. 

It's easy to blame the Internet or TV.  They're new!  The technology is evolving.  The influence is growing.  The science behind the delivery of a message is more precise.  But it's not the Internet or TV.  It's us.  The humans.

I've been pondering this as I've watched groups of people in my own community use various tools to hash out new problems and old conflicts.  A big controversy at the moment is school redistricting.  Comments are flying fast and furious, electronic signatures appear on Internet petitions as quick as a keystroke.  Is it the Internet causing the intense reactions?  No - it's the basic mammailian instinct to protect one's young from perceived threats.  An instinct older than our species itself with a young medium to communicate it.

Soon after my family relocated to this area a situation arose where a homeowner wanted to change the zoning designation of her property, from residential to commercial.  Zoning is a passionate issue here, as homeowners feel they have had little protection from the government and other business interests over the years.  I'm inclined to agree - the county government looked the other way in many instances while a commercial enterprise flauted the law.  It's a key reason this region became a city.

The person making the request followed every procedure to the letter.  A public hearing w/ extensive notice was required.  A meeting room was secured.  Signs were posted.  Civic groups were notified.  A date and time were set.  I don't think they were prepared for the response they got.

The local community was opposed to the change.  Vehemently so.  Email groups fired up.  Civic group leaders banded together to plan their opposition.  Makeshift uniforms (red shirts) were organized.  This tiny meeting room saw 150 residents packed into it.  I was one of them - new to the area, to these people, to this process.  I agreed that the proposed change was a bad idea.  I still do.  But I have had many, MANY second thoughts over the years about how it was communicated and what kind of "people" we all turned into.

Some residents came prepared (armed?) with facts and figures explaining why the property did not qualify for the redesignation.  Others came with more appropriate recommendations for the type of business the individual wanted to open.  But all of that rational planning was overshadowed by the passion that became overwhelming.  Cheering, clapping, yelling.  "Yeah!  Get em!  Don't oppose us!  Because we'll band together and bring everything we've got to stop you!"  One hundred and fifty people yelling and offering legal threats - and one person facing them alone.   Since that time I tried to imagine myself in that person's position.   If I were the person up there calling this meeting, I would have felt threatened by a lynch mob.  I don't know how she kept from crying. 

I wouldn't have thought twice about this at a Braves game.  Pro sports aren't that personal.  But this was.  Everyone involved owned property and wanted to protect it and the local community.  A difference of opinion that could have been discussed calmly became a raving mob.

You'll notice it wasn't the internet.  It was the people.  Live and in person.

Ever since I realized how that scene must have looked, I've tried to be much more careful, in a lot of ways.  Words mean things.

When I see a civic group taking a stand on an issue, I tend to step back.  Is this going to be civil or will there be another mob scene?  I don't know.  I don't want to be a part of a mob.  I certainly don't want to face one alone either.  The same goes for community blogs and online newspapers.  I only recently started posting comments on issues where I feel I have something reasonable to say.  Is it because of the Internet medium and the instant transferral of thought?  No - it's the people involved in it.  The only difference is the location, Internet vs in-person meeting.  The people are no different.

That's a key thing I keep in mind when I'm working on a project.  I've met colleagues and other fellow web technology folks who are so wrapped up in what the machine can do that the needs of the people using it take a back seat.   It takes an enormous amount of effort to ensure that the message one delivers is the same one that gets received.  I think it's worth the effort.  Because we all have to live together.

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