The "Parental Anecdote" Rule of Columnizing

Even speaking as someone with 126 emails — oh Lord, 128 since I started writing this — marked as “important and unread” that I really do intend to answer as soon as possible, which is proving to be something of a struggle, and also sort of humiliating given that some of them date back to, like, January, this claim that people are digitally wasting our time with politeness is, as the publisher of Little Brown put it this morning, pretty much the day civilization died.

But here’s the deal. For each member of your family that your column cites, it becomes doubly as dubious. (This tactic is a hallmark of columns filed by reporters on their way to SXSW or the Oscars or whatever else they have to be at while still filling up that space in our newspapers.) So in this Nick Bilton joint about etiquette and communication, which absolutely definitely has some kernels of truth, for sure, he cites his dad (angry that the kids don’t listen to voicemails) and his mom (with whom he now communicates “mostly through Twitter,” which seems to me a remarkably “weak connection” to have with a primary family member), he has doubled down on parental anecdotes.

Bilton’s point — “But many social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication” — is a funny and not really wrong but still wacky case of blaming other people’s norms for your own helpless situation. We’re the ones doing it wrong, if we can’t get through our inboxes or texts or whatever properly. And the norms vary farther than we may expect. A voicemail, in the real world, is not actually an “impolite way of trying to connect with someone.” It’s perhaps inefficient in many cases, but outside of our bloggy ridiculous bubble, there are actually entire industries whose work is transacted by telephone, where email is limited to “Hey, just left you a voicemail, call me when you can.” That is because these real people work in businesses who actually matter, where real money changes hands, and where lawyers are regularly involved. You still can’t subpoena a phone conversation. Though great news: surely Google Glass will change all that.