Communication Breakdown

At the Social Capital conference, which I attended last month, the closing keynote speaker, a post-grad student doing her PhD in social media (I shit you not), argued that a society of constantly tech-connected individuals was not denigrating the fabric of community nor contributing any more to the disassociation of humans to one another in any more of a way than generations past once feared the telephone, radio or television would.

I'm paraphrasing of course, but the gist of the well-given talk was, to me, that we have always feared new technology, and in the end, appreciated the benefits. Social media will, if it is not already, be viewed in much the same way, once the generation to whom the technology is still thought of as "new" (i.e. my generation) is gone. The point has much validity, of course. My generation never thought of the telephone or television as anything other than a perfect and comfortable necessity in one's life, because it was always there. As younger generations grow up with computers, cell phones and social media all in their life since day one, these things will seem as necessary - and as perfectly natural to integrate into their life - as the telephone and television was to Gen X.

But if I may wave my cane at you and act the curmudgeon for just a moment, I have some divergent thoughts on the issue.

Social media is becoming less social and more media. Less like the telephone and more like the television or radio. Social media is evolving constantly, but it is evolving out of being a tool for communication, like its ancestor, the telephone, and more like a television or radio - a broadcaster.

So many outlets in my online life are talking at me. Very few are talking to me.

Let me show my wisdom experience age once more - when I started blogging, our PhD student would have been in grade school, so she probably wouldn't have cared to witness first-hand the amazing, groundbreaking, storytelling, connection-forming, radical act that blogging used to be.

We wrote, and we read. Then, because it was our avenue to do so, we commented, and what a rich, intelligent, sometimes divisive but mostly supportive place the comment section used to be! There were no trolls, just talk. No keyboard warriors, just conversation. And if we wanted to leave the comment section for a more in-depth, more personal conversation, we headed to email.

And I don't want to sound like any evolution from there was bad, because it wasn't. As Facebook took off, bloggers flocked to it.

We started linking our posts through our profiles, and started commenting on Facebook pages instead of on the blogs.

Meanwhile, the online world blew up, brands noticed, blogging became a marketing and not a storytelling tool and posts became advertisements, not anecdotes about life. Fine, whatever.

But there's not much to say about the branded posts we began to suspect people were only writing for the swag, and even if somebody was taking the time to write an honest-to-goodness real story, we got jaded so we stopped even adding comments to Facebook links and started hitting the Like button; a most passive response that still conveyed acknowledgement without even having to do anything as radical as reading the post.

And if somebody does actually comment on our post, we don't comment back; we Like their comment.

And if we link a post through Twitter or use our 140 characters to offer an observation or thought or opinion, we don't tweet back, we Favourite.

We have funneled our messaging down to so perfectly efficient a system that we no longer have to read, write, utter a syllable or dictate even one word to "communicate."

I'm glad to know that things change quickly in the online landscape, because I'm not sure this is the social media world I want my kids to think is normal. Our student/teacher at SoCap suggested that the anti-tech push to unplug for periods of time is unnecessary and reactionist, but I'll do it anyway. I want my kids to look up, to truly interact with, and not just look down at, the world and the people around them. It's why I am also, at this point, not able to embrace a digital classroom or encourage my nine-year old to get her online profiles in shape. Why, exactly?

A few weeks ago our family spent a wonderful weekend at a sleep-away camp in Ontario's cottage country. The kids had an amazing time outside, ziplining and flying on the trapeze and kayaking and swimming and sleeping in a sleeping bag in a cabin. I'd like my children to attend the camp at some point, because despite it being costly, I'd be willing to pay not for what the camp did have, but what it didn't - hundreds of people were in attendance and not one was in possession of a phone. Nobody looked down at a screen, no drama was being played out over texts, and teenagers were having fun despite the absence of selfies to prove it.

I'll be interested to see what growing up wireless means to my kids, but for now I'll enjoy the fact that they're still young enough to live their life looking up, thinking of screen time still as treat time. That's not to say that an online life will contribute in some way to the downfall of the moral fabric of the next generation, or that the relationships I see degraded by the Like button would not have become tiresome or trite anyway. Communication breakdown - it's always the same.


Should you have a baby shower the second (or third) time around?

Syndicated on BlogHer.com

This week, the gossip rags are lauding us with details of the magical, whimsical baby shower Christina Aguilera and her fiancé have just thrown, vagina cake and all.

Again? Hasn’t she already had a kid? Hasn’t she already had baby showers? My guess is that even if she isn't recycling, that baby’s nursery is already completely stocked with ironically-sloganed organic cotton onesies, receiving blankets woven from the hair of mermaids, and gold-plated soothers.

Why on earth does Christina Aguilera – or anybody, for that matter – need to have a baby shower after the first kid?

I was given two baby showers when I was pregnant with my first daughter. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law hosted a lovely afternoon for my husband’s side of the family, and my work friends threw me a book-themed shower in Toronto. Jews don’t throw each other baby showers, so I didn’t have one for my side of the family, and that was fine. Two showers were great; we came away well-stocked on items both big and small; practical and twee. We were well prepared for our daughter’s arrival, at least in material terms.

Less than two years later, I was pregnant again. And although I hadn’t known the gender of my first child until she was born, this time I knew I was expecting another girl. Clothes that my first daughter had outgrown had been saved and were now transferred back into drawers, awaiting the new baby. Blankets were laundered, books re-shelved, seats, swings and mats that I had received the first time around were dusted off and made ready for use again.

Besides a stroller for two, there was really nothing additional that I needed to accommodate this new baby. So when a friend suggested she host another baby shower for me, I balked.

How greedy did she think I was? How greedy had we all become? I had already been shown the tremendous generosity of friends and loved ones, and thanks to that earlier generosity, my baby stores were still quite nicely supplied. Why on earth would I ask people for more? What could I possibly still need?

In the end, my friends and a I enjoyed a very modest “going away” lunch before my mat-leave, at which several people did in fact bring me a gift for the new baby. It was very nice and very appreciated, but in no way was it requested or expected.

People magazine devotes reams of paper to celebrity baby showers, whether the star’s first, or fifth, child. The excess, the greed, the spectacle, is mind-boggling. And it sells magazines. 

But even closer to earth, a shower for every child seems to have become the norm.

Is it because so many of these new kids seem to also come with new dads, and with showers no longer relegated to the realm of women, these newly-created families reset the counter and feel entitled to a fresh start, with fresh gifts and fresh onesies that some other guy’s hands haven’t held?

Or is it that I’m just completely cynical, and baby showers are meant simply to be an expression of love for an unborn child; an opportunity for friends and loved ones to gather and support the growing family?

As if.

Have you ever been invited to a baby shower and asked not to bring a gift? Because I’m invited to baby showers where cards directing me straight to registries are included in the invitation. The only time I have ever been invited to a baby shower and asked not to bring a gift was when the parents simply requested money. Classy.

And if you are invited to a baby shower for a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) child, what do you do about the other kid(s)? Here kid, take this to the table full of stuff for your unborn sibling, who will continue to upstage you until he learns how to whine and you learn how to get your own snacks – oh, and by the way, I got nothing for you. Move along, try not to cry in the crab dip.

So what I mean is, an invitation to a shower for a subsequent child practically demands a gift for all those older, less special kids you already bought gifts for at their showers.

Sometimes, it's a simple case of a new group of friends throwing a mother a shower for a second kid because they weren't around for the first kid. I get that, and that's fine, because chances are, nobody at the second shower will have been to the first. So maybe the point is not, one shower per mother, but, one shower per guest. Pretty please.

Because it’s all too much.

And it’s all become completely accepted, and, it seems, acceptable. We expect when we are expecting, whether it’s our first and we’re too dumb and excited to realize that our babies don’t need Uggs, they need bibs, or it’s our third and we’re just tired of seeing the same sleepers cycle through the wash, day after day.

Somehow, having a baby makes us think we are deserving of stuff; that our procreation should be constantly funded by our friends, that the words, We’re pregnant! is somehow synonymous with, Bring gifts! And though I do get great joy from hearing the former, I’m getting quite fatigued with the latter. So I’ve embraced two more words that do also accompany the seemingly endless cycle of baby showers we feel no shame in endlessly throwing:

Regrets only.



How to not be dominated by men at a conference full of women

Hush, hush; keep it down now ...

Last spring, I attended a two-day conference put on by the Ministry of Education for members of Parent Involvement Committees, of which I am my board’s chair. Who are the school volunteers? Mainly women. Who attended the conference? Mainly women. Who had to interrupt every session with pithy observations, colour commentary and stupid one-liners? Always a man. Every time. When, exasperated after probably the fifth time this happened in a single session, I leaned over to the woman next to me and whispered, “It’s always a man; they can’t shut up.” She looked at me in horror. Later, she ran up to me in the hallway, and with a conspiratorial edge in her voice, said, “I started noticing it. It’s always a man. Every session.”

It’s always a man. Every session.

Which, of course, it isn’t. It isn’t always a man, and it isn’t every session. But it feels like it is.

The conferences that I attend are populated mainly by women. Social media, education, writing: these seem to be the areas where women gather to play and learn. That’s not to say that there are no men in attendance, but one has only to look as far as the lineups for the washroom in between sessions to know that the numbers skew heavily towards the female of the species.

The conferences I attend, the women-dominated conferences, have all served me well. For the most part, the atmosphere is supportive and friendly; the content interesting and informative; the interactions with other people respectful and considerate.

And yet …

And yet, time and time again, there are always men at these conferences that cannot seem to let an opportunity to dominate a conversation, interrupt a speaker or patronize a woman, pass them by.

Am I generalizing? Yes. But has it happened at every single conference I have ever attended? Yes.

This past weekend, I attended the Social Capital conference in Ottawa. It was my first time attending, and I had a wonderful day. The morning keynote speaker, Trefor Munn-Venn delivered what I think is possibly the best opening line in the history of opening lines, and for much of the day, my conference experience remained buoyed by the early momentum. My own session, on transitioning to professional writing on-line, went very well, and was thankfully early in the day so I could then relax and attend other sessions free of preoccupying thoughts.

And then a male speaker dismissed the entire group present with a flick of the wrist and a declaration that, “Oh right, you’re all mommybloggers.”

And then the roundtable session I was moderating, on The Art of the Pitch (intended for writers as a breakout from my earlier presentation), was completely hijacked by a male attendant, who neither wrote, nor pitched to magazines.

I was criticized heavily for all aspects regarding my approach to pitching, and the session turned into a lecture on selling PR campaigns the right way.

Here’s the thing: I enjoy debate. I enjoy a critical discussion about the state of the (my) industry. I enjoy a dissenting viewpoint clearly stated.

But what I – what we – got, was total domination. And how did I react? At first, with all the diplomacy I could muster. And then, after that failed, with silence.

I was silenced. The other people around the table were silenced.

After the session, I apologized to several of the people who had attended for wasting their time. Mercifully, the obviousness with which we had been hijacked was clear, and my efforts in trying to shut it down, acknowledged. As one attendant later put it, it was like meeting the human embodiment of “manspaining.”

But the feeling that I had failed the group, myself, and women in general by not having the tools to deflect the onslaught of patronization, has left me feeling defeated. I am no shrinking violet, but this was not my house. In order to remain respectful to the group, my hosts, and yes, even to the person dominating the discussion, I suppressed the urge to yell, shut the – well, I’m sure you can imagine what I would have liked to have yelled – and tried to focus on being professional.

But being silenced isn’t being professional. And suggesting that all men at all conferences should be silenced isn’t fair. There must be some middle ground.

There must be a way for men not to be domineering at a conference full of women, and women not to be victimized by the domineering men.

Because a conference, a microcosm of a larger professional world, is not the place to be quiet, or quieted. But words should always be measured for their effect on others. There is a way to share important messages without risking that their weight drown out others. Voices, after all, do carry.