Email, Social Media, and Toxic Flattening
The amorphous They doesn't really exist
When I put together the “Links Dump” section of last week’s Week in Review post, there was a group of tabs I had open that I didn’t include because they seemed thematically linked: Derek Thompson in The Atlantic on the “triple-peak work day,” Kevin Drum’s response to Thompson, and an Inside Higher Ed post on the inportance of setting boundariesby Wilmarie Rodriguez and Amy Carpenter. This is one of those themes that comes around periodically, the idea that some force or another is compelling people to work longer hours, to the deteriment of work-life balance. Everybody’s got their own particular take on it, usually one that is at least obliquely flattering to the author’s preferred group— Thompson argues that it’s managers demanding too many meetings, Rodriguez and Carpenter that it’s because of the selfless nature of dedicated academics— but everyone seems to agree that there’s pressure to be “on call” at all hours of the day and night. Well, except Drum, who thinks it’s all an illusion…
My own take on this is that a lot of what’s going on is actually a Good Thing, something acknowledged by both Thompson and Drum: remote-work technology makes it possible for white-collar workers to be more flexible about when they do stuff, which is actually a net positive for the elusive work-life balance. I do most of my writing before 9am, and answer a lot of work email in both that block and the 7-9pm zone between family dinner and bedtime for the kids, but that doesn’t mean I’m working from 7am to 9pm. Instead, I’m usually knocking a couple of hours out of the middle of the traditional 9-5 workday for exercise and making sure that the kids are ready for school, picked up from after-school activities, and fed, etc.. I’m not working an unreasonable number of hours in the aggregate, I’m just shifting some of them to times outside the “normal” workday. (I’ve written about this before.)
I do think there’s a tech angle to this, though, which also ties into larger questions of online politics. That is, one of the common features of this complaint is that it posits a sort of shadowy “They” who are insisting on work at inconvenient hours, and pressuring people to extend their work day to an unreasonable degree by the sheer fact that “They” are all working those hours, too. Except, I think that “They” is largely an illusion created by the asynchronous nature of email and other communications technologies used for remote work.
That is, I think what’s largely going on is that lots of individual people are making indvidual decisions about how to shift work around to suit their individual personal and family needs and responsibilities. Some of them are morning people, and start working really early, others are night owls and peak after the early risers are in bed. They’re all working a reasonable amount in the aggregate, but it’s spread around a larger fraction of the clock.
When that hits your email inbox or Slack notifications, though, those individual scheduling decisions get flattened into an amorphous “They.” All the emails from all the people who kept working after you went to bed, or started before you woke up look the same, and the result can be overwheming. If you’re not careful to disaggregate these, working asynchronously can create a false impression that everybody is working basically around the clock.
This is a variant of the flattening of ideological groups that happens a lot on social media, and creates the impression that the political poles are full of self-contradicting idiots. If you spend too much time on Twitter and Facebook and the like, you end up seeing a political coalition taking sets of positions that look completely incoherent— to take an example that bubbled up this weekend, that we urgently need to transition to renewable energy and also that it’s outrageous to suggest building solar panel arrays to generate electricity. That’s not a pair of positions that makes a whole lot of sense together.
But the existence of those two positions within left-of-center social media does not, in fact, mean that all liberals are illogical idiots. What you’re seeing is mostly an illusion: a flattening of a broader coalition that contains a group of people who are pro-renewable-energy and a group who are anti-solar-farm, but few people who espouse both of those at the same time. (That overlap set is not zero, alas, but that’s a whole different religious argument…) Unless you’re really carefully keeping track of which people say which things, though, both sets of posts look like they’re coming from some amorphous Left that’s both very strident and very stupid.
I think this flattening of groups is an underrated part of the general toxicity of politics on social media, and the analogous flattening of schedules likewise contributes to the toxic impression that everybody else is a workaholic. In both cases, this is largely due to the remote and asynchronous nature of the media we’re using to interact. When you’re together in the same office every day, it’s readily apparent that Bob comes in early but knocks off at 3pm to get his kids after school, while Alice comes in a little late and stays past five, because you see them coming and going. When everything is online, all you see is a stack of messages and notifications.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this— in both cases, we just need to learn to be more careful about disaggregating messages from broad groups, whether they’re members of a political coalition, or a collection of co-workers. Given that the political version has been a problem for a bunch of years now, though, I’m not super optimistic we’ll get the schedule version sorted any time soon.
So that’s a bit of “Back on My Bullshit” to start the week. If you find this brand of bullshit congenial, here’s a button to click to get more of it:
If you want to disagree, here’s another button you can use to leave a comment: