Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Time, attention and our social networks

Posted by shannonclark on August 28, 2007

What we pay attention to, what we care about, shapes, influences and defines our social networks.

(by Esther Dyson)

Consider the most basic units of time – timezones and the definition of the week. Broadly speaking the timezone(s) we focus our attention upon define (mostly) our primary social circles. This is not always, as Cory Doctorow points out in his book Eastern Standard Tribe, the same as the timezone where we live – but it is usually.

Likewise, how we define when the week starts and ends is a major factor in defining our primary social circles. Here in the US this may seem redundant – the weekend is Sat & Sun, the week Mon – Fri (usually thought of as the week starts on Monday, ends on Sunday.

However for religious Jews or Muslims here in the US and for most of the Middle East, the week starts on Sunday (which is a workday, not a day of rest) and ends on Saturday, with Friday being part of the weekend – and Friday night (sundown) to Saturday night defining the holy day each week.

In the US most religious Jews and Muslims have to accommodate the US pattern, so they work on Friday until before sundown.

And for many of us (myself included) who are non-religious Saturday and Sunday are “the weekend” but do not have a significant difference – one day or the other is not a special “day of rest” or imbued with religious meaning.

But think about how just a simple fact about how you perceive the week defines crucial social differences. If you treat Friday night as a religious occasion whether or not you know each other in any other respect you have something vital in common. Of course if you are Jewish and another person is Muslim many other differences might soon show up – but you start from a common view of time – one which is different from the majority here in the US.

Further, if you treat Sunday as a religious occasion – i.e. you focus on a regular “go to church” activity most Sundays – separate from which church you attend (or even if you make it to Church most Sundays) you share something. You might also fall into the category (limited mostly to the US) of thinking “Sunday afternoon = Football” which would be a further grouping. These groups have some overlap – but not 100%.

My point is that a common perception of time defines potential groups. If you and I do not share many of our focuses and definitions of time – if what you consider important about 2008, about each Sunday, about next month, about the end of Summer etc are all different from what I am focused on, then we are in some literal way from different worlds. We may still find overlap, find a set of common interests and create common foci but it will be much harder.

If, instead, we build from a set of some common interests – as defined by what we are paying attention to and how we perceive different times, then we are very likely to have other bonds – and most likely we will share with each other things we are paying attention to – and find more and more ways to overlap our schedules and our attention.

Let me illustrate this further with a discussion about the month of August/early Sept.

In Europe many people think “Aug = holiday”. Not quite literally true, but seemingly entire cities and companies go on holiday at the same time in August.

In the US, if you are a parent (or a student) then August usually means “last month of Summer, school is going to be starting soon”. Often the end of summer is the Labor Day weekend here in the US.

Here in San Francisco (and to a degree in other places) the end of August is defined for many by “Burning Man”. Even if you are not going, the fact that so many people from San Francisco are spending the end of August at Burning Man shapes how the city works (and how many Bay Area companies work).

I am part of many different mostly non-overlapping social networks. Labor Day Weekend and the days around it are, each year, an exercise in choosing from amongst a large set of possible networks. Many friends are going to Burning Man. In years past many others went to the SCA’s (Society for Creative Anachronism) annual Pensic War (which I attended twice in the early 90’s). Many other Labor Day weekends I have attended the World Science Fiction Convention (was in Anaheim last year, this year though many friends are there I’m not going to Japan). This year there is also a local gaming convention, Conquest over Labor Day weekend which I’m sure many friends of mine will attend and which I am considering attending.

Another, more private social network (of sorts) which holds events four or five times a year usually holds an event around Labor Day weekend, this year in Monterey (which if I had planned a bit in advance I probably should have attended).

And even more so than in years past as more of my friends have children, especially school aged children I am more aware of the fact that school is starting up again.

As a Chicago Bears fan I am also following the end of pre-season and the beginning of the regular season.

As a Chicago Cubs fan I’m also following the ongoing season and cheering as August comes to an end and the Cubs are still in contention (a rare occasion indeed).

As a business person and entrepreneur though I am not on vacation this year at the end of August, I am aware that many people are, so though I continue to work on building my startups the end of August is, perhaps, best spend on the multitude of tasks which do not require replies from others (many of whom might not get back to me until sometime in early September.

And that is just what comes immediately to mind as I write this towards the end of August.

At the beginning of September begins a series of Jewish Holidays. Though I am not a religious Jew, I am Jewish and increasingly aware that many of my friends are as well, so I am more aware than I was in the past of when the major Jewish holidays are.

In the stores at the moment for the most part they are dominated by Back to School sales. In a few weeks, these will be replaced by Halloween sales, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas (here in the US – clearly not Thanksgiving sales in other parts of the world).

I do not own a TV, so though I am vaguely aware that we are still in the “summer” season on TV (and thus in a time of generally few original or new shows) very soon we will enter the “fall” season and new shows will resume airing. I am not, however, aware of when this will be. Instead, I am more focused on when a very small handful of shows I do care about will be broadcast (but in most cases this is not until sometime next year – i.e. 2008).

A small side note. A telling definition of time is whether you think of the year as starting and ending on the calendar year (i.e. for most of the West starting on Jan 1) or if you are more focused on another “year” – such as the school year – so starting in the fall, usually end of Aug/early Sept and ending in the spring in May or June. For many people similarly you might be focused on the football or baseball seasons (or other sports – basketball, college football, golf, and soccer/football among many others have their avid fans). For each of these you might think of the “year” as being defined by the start and end of a season – not a physical season but the sports season.

So Sports, Religion, School, Hobbies and Work all define to a large extent our perception of time – and thus create and are created by the groups by which we define ourselves. When we overlap, at least in part, with others, we have a starting point for a common bond. You might be following the San Francisco Giants and I the Chicago Cubs but the fact that we are both aware of and paying attention to the baseball season is a starting point for a common bond. If, instead, I paid a lot of attention to baseball (I don’t but am at least aware of it to a degree) and you paid no attention to it all, then we see the world and time in different ways.

Of course we might still be friends and overlook this difference between us, but our view of reality is different.

So why this lengthy discussion – full of places I should have linked but haven’t yet (I’ll try to go back and add some links)?

Our current tools do not do a good job of helping us map our own perceptions of time – or find others who share these in a broad sense. Sure, a tool such as Upcoming or Facebook might show us people who are following a specific event which we are also following but they do not help us see bigger pictures and patterns. Nor do we add to most such “social networks” the broader, bigger picture patterns of perception of time which are so vital.

Consider 2008. When I think of it, I immediately think “presidential election”. A bit later I might think “new seasons of Doctor Who and Torchwood”. Pressed still further I might start to think about specific activities in 2008 which I plan on attending, SXSW 2008 in Austin TX, Wiscon in Madison WI, etc.

There are many other answers, each showing a bit about what you are paying the most attention to. For some you might focus on new cars (starting sometime in the Fall of 2007), you might think “new version of Madden Football”, you might think “when I graduate”, etc.

I think it would be a really fascinating experiment (and perhaps a useful service on some dating sites) to ask some fairly open ended questions that capture elements of your perception of time. And then in a fuzzy manner use these to start to show how/if you overlap with others.

So, you might go from the very broad “when does the week start and end”, “what do you do every weekend?”, what do you think about Mon – Fri? any regular things you wait for/think about each week?

To more specific questions – “what are you looking forward to next week? next month? next season? (and which “season”(s) do you think about?)”

I know that most likely anyone woman (I’m a single straight man) who defines her week by a religious observation is most likely not for me – though if that observation is not on Sundays the chances are much better. Likewise someone who is mostly focused around consumer patterns (new fashion seasons, new seasons of TV, various “Hallmark Holidays”) but not around personal interests – whatever they are is also unlikely to be for me. I pay some attention to food seasons, what’s fresh and available at the local farmer’s markets – someone who shared that passion of mine would be fairly interesting to me.

Especially if she also paid some attention to overlapping passions – science fiction, writing etc. Even if the events she followed were different than what I followed (heck, might be something I’d want to go to myself).

As I write this I’m thinking of countless other things people wait for, people follow and pay attention to – concert schedules, seasons of theater, sports schedules, tax years, public company earnings calls, annual conferences for various industries, etc.

We need to find ways to think about what we pay attention to – and to find others who share, at least some, of our view of the world.

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