In the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling repeatedly uses a very effective technique: turning a character, initially introduced as part of the background, into a foreground character. This happens with the characters of Gilderoy Lockhart, Viktor Krum and Sirius Black for instance. In fact she uses the technique so frequently (with even minor characters like Mr. Ollivander and Stan Shunpike) that the background starts to empty out.
This is rather annoying because the narrative suggests and promises a very large world — comparable in scope and complexity to the Lord of the Rings world say — but delivers a very small world in which everybody knows everybody. You are promised an epic story about the fate of human civilization, but get what feels like the story of a small town. Characters end up influencing each other’s lives a little too frequently, given the apparent size of the canvas.
We are used to big worlds that act big and small worlds that act small. We are not used to big worlds that act small.
Which is a problem, because that’s the sort of world we now live in. Our world is turning into Rowling’s world.
The Double-Take Zone
Our lives are streams of mostly inconsequential encounters with people who momentarily break away from the nameless and faceless social dark matter that surrounds our personal worlds. But most of the time, they return to the void.
Each of us is at the center of a social reality surrounded by a foreground social zone of 150 odd people with names and faces, a 7-billion strong world of social dark matter outside, and an annular social gray zone in between, comprising a few thousand people.
This last category contains people who are neither completely anonymous and interchangeable, nor possessed of completely unique identities in relation to us. Included in this annular ring are old classmates and coworkers who still register as unique individuals but have turned into insubstantial ghosts, associated only with a dim memory or two. Also in this ring are public figures and celebrities whom we recognize individually, but who don’t rise above the archetypes that define their respective classes. And then there are all those baristas and receptionists whom you see regularly.
It is this social gray zone that interests me, and there’s a simple test for figuring out if somebody is in this zone with respect to you: if you meet them out of context, you’ll do a double-take.
If the barista at your coffee shop shows up at the grocery store, you’ll do a quick double-take. Then you’ll make the appropriate context switch, and recognition will turn into identification. Our language accurately reflects this thought process: we say I can’t place her and I just figured out where I know her from.
This happens with celebrities too. I am pretty good at the game of recognizing lesser-known actors in new roles. When watching TV, I often say things like, “Oh, the villain’s sister in Dexter… I just realized, she played Alma Garrett in Deadwood.” I tend to spot these connections across shows and movies faster than most people.
The reason for the double-take effect is obvious. Most of the people we recognize enough to distinguish from faceless/nameless social dark matter are still one-dimensional, context-dependent figures: the barista who works mornings at the Starbucks on Sahara Avenue. Double-take zone people are literally part of the social background.
It takes a few serendipitous encounters in different contexts to pry someone loose from context, but mostly, nothing happens. They merely turn into slightly more well-defined elements of their default contexts: the barista who works at Starbcucks on Sahara Avenue, that I once ran into at Whole Foods.
This still isn’t the same as actually knowing someone, but it is a necessary first step (as an aside, this is the reason why the three media/three contacts rule in sales works the way it does). Double-take moments are relationship-escalation options with expiry dates. They create a window of opportunity within which the relationship can escalate into a personal one.
There is a reason haven’t we met before? is the mother of all pick-up lines.
So let’s say there are three zones around you. The context-free zone of personal relationships, surround by a context-dependent double-take zone (call it the don’t-I-know-you-from-somewhere zone if you prefer), and finally, social dark matter.
The Real and Abstract Parts of the Social Graph
The personal, context-free zone is the part of the social graph that is real for you. Here, you don’t deal in abstractions like “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” You deal in specifics like, “You need to get yourself a meeting with Joe. Let me send an introductory email.” You could probably sketch out this part of the social graph fairly accurately on paper, with real names and who-knows-whom connections. You don’t need to speculate about degrees of separation here. You can count them.
The dark matter world is the part of the social graph that is an abstraction for you. You have abstract ideas about how it works (Old Boy networks, people taking board seats in each other’s companies, the idea that weak links lead to jobs, the idea that Asians have stronger connections than Americans), but you couldn’t actually sketch it out except in coarse, speculative ways using groups rather than individuals.
The double-take zone is populated by people who are socially part of the abstract social network that defines the dark matter, but physically or digitally are concrete entities in your world, embedded in specific contexts that you frequent. Prying someone loose from the double-take zone means moving them from the abstract social graph into your real, neighborhood graph. They go from being concrete and physically or virtually situated in your mind to being concrete and socially situated, independent of specific contexts. If mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists ran the world, the socially correct thing to say in a double-take situation would be: “Oh, we’re context-independent now; do you want to take this on-graph?”
In these terms, Rowling’s little trick involves introducing characters in the double-take zone and then moving them to the context-free zone. In the process, she socially situates them. Lockhart goes from abstract celebrity author making an appearance at a bookstore to teacher with specific relationships to the lead characters. Sirius Black initially appears as an abstract criminal on television, but turns into Harry’s godfather. Viktor Krum is a distant celebrity Quidditch player who turns into Ron’s rival for the affections of Hermione.
The Active, Unstable Layer
The double-take zone is defined by the double-take test, but such tests are rare. What happens when they do occur? Since an actual double take creates a window of opportunity to personalize a relationship — an active option — you could call this the active and unstable layer of the double-take zone. The more actual double takes are happening, the more the zone is active and unstable.
Our minds deal badly with the double-take zone when it is stable and dormant. And we really fumble when it gets active and unstable. Why?
Our social instincts are based on physical-geographic separation of scales. In the pre-urban world, the double-take zone was empty. You either knew somebody personally as a fellow villager, or as a stranger visiting from the dark-matter world. Strangers couldn’t stay strangers. They either went away soon and were forgotten, or stayed and became fellow villagers.
We are used to being careful around people from our village, and more careless in our dealings with strangers passing through. We take the long view of relationships within local communities, and are more willing to pick fights with strangers. There is less likelihood of costs escalating out of control via vendettas in the latter case. It is also easier. The obvious tourist is more easily cheated than the local.
Our psychological instincts appear to have evolved to deal with this type of social reality. We are more likely (and able) to dehumanize strangers before dealing roughly with them.
Urbanization created the double-take zone. Mass media expanded it vastly, but asymmetrically (mass media creates relationships that are double-take in one direction, dark-matter in the other). The Internet is expanding it vastly once again, this time with more symmetry, thanks to the explosion in number of contexts it offers, for encounters to occur.
This wouldn’t matter so much if the expansion didn’t affect stability. We know how to deal with stable and dormant double-take zones.
The Rules of Civility
Before the Internet began seriously destabilizing and activating the double-take zone, it was an unnatural social space, but we knew how to deal with it.
The double-take zone merely requires learning a decent and polite, but impersonal approach to interpersonal behavior: civility. It requires a capacity for an abstract sort of friendliness and a baseline level of mutual helpfulness among strangers. We learn the non-Duchene smile — something that sits uncomfortably in the middle of a triangle defined by a genuine smile, a genuine frown, and a blank stare.
We think of such baseline civility as the right way to deal with the double-take zone. This is why salespeople come across as insincere: they act as though double-take zone relationships were something deeper.
The pre-Interent double-take zone was fairly stable. Double-take events were truly serendipitous and generally didn’t go anywhere. Most relationship options expired due to low social and geographic mobility. A random encounter was just a random encounter. Travel was stimulating, but poignant encounters abroad rarely turned into anything more.
The rules of conduct that we know as civility have an additional feature: they are based on an assumption of stable, default-context status relationships that carry over to non-default contexts. A century ago, if a double-take moment did occur, once the parties recognized each other (made easier by obvious differences in clothing and other physical markers of class membership), the default-context status relationship would kick in. If a lord decided to take a walk through the village market on a whim, and ran into his gardener, once the double-take moment passed, the gardener would doff his hat to the lord, and the lord would confer a gracious nod upon the gardener.
But this sort of prescribed, status-dependent civility is no longer enough. The rules of civility cannot deal with an explosion of serendipitous encounters.
Social Mobility versus Status Churn
Since double-take encounters temporarily dislocate people from the default context through which you know them, and make them temporarily more alive after, you could say the double-take zone is coming alive with nascent relationships: relationships that have been dislodged from a fixed physical or digital context, but haven’t yet been socially situated.
There is an additional necessary condition for more to happen: the double-take moment must also destabilize default assumptions about relative status.
Double-take events today destabilize status, unlike similar events a century ago. This is because we read them differently. A lord strolling through a market a century ago — a domain marked for the service class — knew that he was a social tourist. Double-take events, if they happened, were informed by the assumption that one party was an alien to the context, and both sides knew which one was the alien. Everybody wore the uniform of their home class, wherever they went.
Things are different today. A century ago, social classes were much more self-contained. Rich, middle class and poor people didn’t run into each other much outside of expected contexts. They shopped, ate and socialized in different places for instance. This is why traditional romantic stories are nearly always based on the trope of the heroine temporarily escaping from a home social class to a lower one, and having a status-destabilizing encounter with a lower-class male (the reverse, a prince going walkabout and meeting a feisty commoner-girl, seems to be a less common premise, but that’s a whole other story).
But today, one of the effects of the breakdown of the middle class and trading-up is that status relationships become context-dependent. There is no default context.
Let’s say you’re an administrative assistant at a university, have an associate’s degree, and frequent a coffeeshop where the barista is a graduate student. You both shop at Whole Foods. She’s trading up, as far as dietary lifestyles go, to shop at Whole Foods, while it is normal for you because you have a higher household income.
In the coffeeshop, you’re higher status as customer. If you run into each other at Whole Foods, you’re equals. If you run into each other on campus, she’s the superior.
Short of becoming President, there is almost nothing you can do that will earn you a default status with everybody. It’s up in the air.
This isn’t social mobility. The whole idea of social mobility, at least in the sense of classes as separate, self-contained social worlds, is breaking down. Instead you have context-dependent status churn. Double-take moments don’t necessarily indicate that one party is a tourist outside their class. There are merely moments that highlight that class is a shaky construct today.
Worlds are mixing, so double-takes become more frequent. But what makes the increased frequency socially disruptive is that status relationships are different in the different contexts.
Even more unprecedented than status churn is temporal churn.
People from the same nominal class, who once knew each other, can move into each other’s double-take zones simply by drifting apart in space. That’s why you do a double-take when you randomly run into an old classmate, whom you haven’t seen for decades, in a bookstore (happened to me once). Or when you run into a hallway-hellos level coworker, whom you’ve never worked directly with, at the grocery store (this happened to me as well).
It is not changes in appearance or social status that make immediate recognition difficult. It is the unfamiliar context itself.
This sort of thing doesn’t happen much anymore. We don’t catch up as much anymore because we never disconnect. Unexpected encounters are rare because online visibility never drops to zero. Truly serendipitous encounters turn into opportunistically planned ones via online early-warning signals.
One effect of this is that relationships can go up or down in strength over a lifetime, since they are continuously unstable and active. Once you’ve friended somebody on Facebook, and their activities keep showing up in your stream, you are more likely to look them up deliberately for a meeting or collaboration. Social situation awareness is not allowed to fade. The active and unstable double-take layer is constantly suggesting opportunities and ideas for deeper interaction.
It’s not that time doesn’t matter anymore, but that time does more complicated things to relationships. In the pre-Internet world, relationships behaved monotonically in the long term. You either lost touch, and the relationship weakened over time, or you stayed in touch and the relationship got stronger over time. Some relationships plateaued at a certain distance.
Few relationships went up and down in dramatic swings as they routinely do today.
Mere static-status civility is no longer enough to deal with a world of volatile relationships created by status churn across previously distinct classes, and temporal churn that ensures that relationships that never quite die. Relationships that move in and out of the double-take zone (or even just threaten to do so) need a very different approach.
You never know when you might turn a barista into a new friend after a double-take encounter, or renew a relationship with an old one via a Facebook Like.
The sane default attitude today is the world is small and life is long. Reinventing yourself is becoming prohibitively expensive. You have to navigate under the expectation that the real part of your social graph will grow over time, even if you move around a lot. If you are immortal and can move sufficiently fast in space and time, the abstract social graph may vanish altogether, like it did for Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who made it the mission of his immortal life to insult everybody in the galaxy, in person, by name, and in alphabetical order.
The phrase the world is small and life is long came up in a conversation with an acquaintance in Silicon Valley. We’d been talking about how the Silicon Valley technology world, despite being quite large, acts like a small world. We’d been talking, in particular, about the dangers of burning bridges and picking fights. We both agreed that that’s a very dangerous thing to do. That’s when my acquaintance trotted out that phrase, with a philosophical shrug.
Of the two parts of the phrase, the world is small is easier to understand. I don’t think it has much to do with the much-publicized four-degrees finding on Facebook. Status and temporal churn within the six-degree world is sufficient to explain what’s happening.
Life is long is the bit people often fail to appreciate. The social graph throbs with actual encounters every minute, that are constantly rewiring it. If you are in a particular neck of the woods for a long enough time, you’ll eventually run into everybody within it more than once. It’s the law of large numbers applied to accumulating random encounters.
Silicon Valley is a place where worlds collide frequently in different status-churning contexts, and circulation through different roles over time creates temporal churn. There are other worlds that exhibit similar dynamics. Most of the world is going to look like this in a few decades.
It is increasingly going to be a world of shifting alliances and status relationships within a larger, far more active and unstable layer in a much larger double-take zone. A world where you will never be quite sure where you stand in relation to a large number of potentially important people.
Some people love this emerging, charged social world, always poised on the edge of serendipity. They seem to come alive with this much static in the air. They thrive on status churn. They hoard relationships, turning every chance encounter into a rest-of-life relationship.
Others fantasize about declaring relationship bankruptcy and starting a new life somewhere else. At one time, this was actually very easy to do. Today, you need the Witness Protection Program to pull it off.
I am not certain whether I like or dislike this emerging world. I think I am leaning towards dislike. The slogan, the world is small and life is long describes a tense and anxious world of constant social shadow-boxing. One where you must always be on, socially. A world where burning bridges is more dangerous, and open conflict becomes ever costlier, leading to less dissent and more stupidity.
It is a situation of false harmony. One where peace is less an indicator of increasing empathy and human connection, and more an indicator of increasing wariness. You never know which world your world will collide with next, with what consequences. You never know what missed opportunity or threat could decisively impact your life.
So far, we’ve been able to do without the opportunities, and avoid the threats. We try to teach teenagers what we think are the right kinds of cautious lessons: it boils down to be careful what you post on Facebook, it could affect your job.
But this is a transient stage. Soon we won’t be able to do without the opportunities, and our lives will come to depend on the serendipity catalyzed by the active, unstable double-take layer. Nice-to-have has a way of turning into must-have. This dependence will come with necessary exposure to the threats. The world is small and life is long will not be enough protection.
Motivational speakers used to preach a few decades back that we should all think global and act local.
It has happened. But I don’t think this is quite what they had in mind.