Our Connected Christmas

We had a traditional Christmas this year, though since the kids are now sixteen and seventeen their sleep patterns were not disturbed by an anxious wait to see what Santa would provide in return for their good behaviour during the year.

After a lazy morning, a protracted lunch and a game of Scrabble we settled down to watch Doctor Who and the latest Wallace and Gromit, assembled on the sofa in a perfect twenty-first century family scene.

However in a slight break with tradition our shining faces were illuminated not just by the glare of the television but also by two laptops and my iPod Touch as we used Microsoft Messenger, Facebook and Twitter to keep in contact with our friends around the world.

In the quiet bits of the programmes, and between them, we were letting friends and family know what was going on, chatting to those we like to share our experiences with and staying connected to the wider social networks that are such an important part of all our lives, without losing the intimacy of a quiet Christmas Day at home.

We had it easy, of course, since we’re a wired household and the technology is not seen as intrusive or unwelcome. That patter is still relatively unusual as one of my online friends, Christian Payne, found out. In a comment on Twitter he summed up the difficulty of spending Christmas Eve in a non-wired household:

It’s hard hanging round the non-geek. i have to keep a low profile. laptops are associated with work and not necessarily communication.

He’s absolutely right, but I think that he will find life less difficult next year, because the big change we are going to see through 2009 will be the breakdown of the association between the network and work even for those who would never describe themselves as geeks.

We can see the pattern shifting already. Over the last week the number of work-related emails I’ve received has dropped to a trickle, and my spam filters are good enough that I rarely see any of the invitations to invest in dodgy companies, buy herbal versions of drugs that will enhance my sexual prowess or cash in on fake lotteries.

But I’ve been receiving a constant stream of Friendfeed updates, Dopplr notices, BrightKite checkins, Last.fm recommendations and Facebook notifications since the many and various social network sites I am a member of have remained just as active in the holiday season.

My friends, relations and contacts are all online and they are using the social network services as heavily as ever, even though most of them aren’t in their offices or working on projects.

Some, especially freelances like me who have to work or we don’t get to eat, are still in the midst of it all – as you can see from this column, written when most people are enjoying the extended Christmas-new year break.

But those who can get away from their job are not using the time to get away from the network, because the network has become embedded in the pattern of their lives in the way that the mobile phone managed five years ago.

For a growing number of people, and I include myself and my children, being offline over the holiday would be as strange as cutting off the telephone and not calling relatives on Christmas morning. Laptops and mobiles are not a burden but a tool that gives us contact, and we would not give this up.

The problem, of course, is how to balance work and life, how to ensure that the screen that gives direct contact with friends, offers invitations to parties and gigs and an insight into the lives of those we like and care for is not also a way for employers and editors to monitor and control us. We need to ensure that the means of online communication serve and do not oppress.

I’m more optimistic about this than some. Twenty-five years ago the IBM Personal Computer managed to undermine the corporate mainframe because it was affordable by middle managers in large companies, who could buy one to do their accounts and learned that it was also capable of much more.

Something similar is happening today with home internet connections, laptops and of course mobile phones. The technologies that companies insist on foisting on their employees to keep them tethered to the office can also keep them connected to their personal networks, using tools and services that are far more effective and compelling than email ever was.

And the end result might be to undermine the work ethos that sees the office Blackberry as a way for management to keep staff connected to the office, and see it instead as a tool for maintaining an extended online friendship network that can also be used to manage work tasks.

This is possible because the space occupied by computers and the network has changed radically in the last year, and the way that network tools like Twitter and Facebook have become part of the general reporting of news events, celebrity gossip and even political developments reflects the broader trend.

These online services have superseded instant messaging for many of the more technologically astute partly because they offer a sense of participation in a public space, validating our social connections by making them semi-public in the same way as going on a date with a desirable partner can enhance one’s self-esteem.

So when we spend our Christmas holidays online it is not because my children have become sad geeks, mirroring their father’s dependence on technology, but because our friendship networks now have such a significant online component that to ignore it and go offline over the holiday would be an unfriendly thing to do.

And while I didn’tl bother fighting the network congestion to send many text messages at midnight on New Year’s Eve this year, there were a whole load of tweets and the odd Facebook status update.

Bill’s Links

Jemima Kiss interviews Christian Payne

History of Personal Computer: