Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Chyubinupto Avalanche: Reconnecting gone wild

I was talking to a friend of mine this evening about a phenomenon that I think is only going to grow in the next few years: Where do you start when reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances online? I call this a "Chyubinupto Event". The process goes something like this:
  1. You find somebody you "used to know" online. This might be on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, or just by Googling for them.
  2. You initiate contact -- by "friending" them, sending an email, whatever.
  3. They respond back with something along the lines of "Hi! So good to hear from you! What have you been up to?" (Or in my native Pittsburghese, "Chyubinupto?")
Now it's up to you to decide how big the Chyubinupto avalanche is going to be. The length of time since your last contact with the person in question plays a part -- the longer it's been, the larger the potential avalanche can be. You can distill a lot or a little, but at some level you've got to decide how to summarize that gap.

Where do you start? How many major life events do you include? Do you filter out the bad and only share the good? What if everything was going great until the last couple months? Do you just ignore recent history and present your "everything's great" story? Do you try to pour it all into one big biographical text, or do you provide a table of contents and let them drill in on the chapters they're most interested in?

And of course, the answers will be different for each individual you encounter in this way. Your long-lost-cousin probably cares a lot more about your parents divorce than somebody you went to Biology class with. It seems like the only way out is to have an arbitrarily detailed biography on hand that you can draw from -- think of an outline with "twisties". Just encountered your high school sweetheart? Send them your outline down to depth 3. Your best friend whom you got into a fight with 5 years ago, and you're patching things up? You're going to need to go deep, say level 7. The guy who roomed across the hall from you your freshman year? Level 1.

This sort of thing used to happen mostly at things like class reunions, which were different in a couple ways:
  • Reunion events are inherently timeboxed. There is a finite amount of time in which to catch up with a relatively large number of people, so you're limited in the amount of information you can share with any particular individual.
  • Reunion events are face-to-face. You can tell pretty quickly if the target of your avalanche is still interested in hearing more, or if they were just being polite by not totally shunning you.
But in an online Chyubinupto Event, you don't have either the time or interpersonal cues to know if they're keeping up or if the avalanche is burying them in way too many details. Also, you're likely to encounter a wider range of people you knew at one time -- coworkers, neighbors, etc., not just folks you went to school with.

Oh, and in the online world, this could happen to you a few hundred times over the next few years -- think about how many people you "used to know" in one capacity or another. Nearly everybody I know has had a number of Chyubinupto Events happen to them recently, and I can only expect that we'll see more of them -- if you think about it, each new user on a social networking site represents hundreds of potential Chyubinupto Events as they reconnect with folks they've fallen out of touch with.

The good news is that Chyubinupto Events and the subsequent information avalanches seem to be relatively limited events insofar as that when they do occur, there's typically a burst of information from one party to the other (usually vice-versa), and then things fall back to a relatively low-bandwidth state of affairs. I can pay continuous partial attention (through their Facebook mini-feeds, twitter, del.icio.us, etc.) to a lot of people once I've caught up with them enough -- it's the act of catching up that requires more dedicated bandwidth.

The generation currently in high school and college probably won't ever notice this effect as they'll be more likely to keep in touch with folks as they age. Their internet-mediated relationships are already effectively in the homeostasis zone -- there's very little cognitive overhead to staying in a Facebook group for your class, after all.

I guess this is indirectly an open letter to the various folks I've reconnected with online and to whom I still owe replies to their respective "What have you been up to?" queries. I'm probably still distilling my answer -- it's not an easy question.

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