Modern day game of telephone


Did you ever play the game telephone?

Even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with it. But just in case… the game works like this (and doesn’t involve a phone)…

You get a group of people. Ten is a good number. Person one passes a message to person two. It’s done in a way where they’re the only two that can here the message, say by whispering or whatever way allows the exact message—the exact phrasing and words—to only be shared by person one and person two.

Next step of the game is person two passing the message along to person three under similar conditions. And then, it continues, until person ten receives the message.

Once the chain is completed, person ten shares the message and it gets compared to the original. Hilarity ensues when everyone gets to see how much it’s changed.

More often than not, the shift isn’t that incredible if you consider the first and final versions of the message. Something that began as having a picnic on a nearby hill finishes as an observation that it’s a great day to eat outside… a thought about how brilliantly blue the sky appears to be morphs into how bright and hot the sun is that afternoon.

Funny? Sure. Crazy, unthinkable stuff? Probably not.

But there are times when the messages get swept away and become wildly, ridiculously, potentially even dangerously different. And those times are not at all rare or isolated. It may not be a majority of instances. It’s absolutely not one-in-a-million.

One of the practical applications of the game comes in the form of team-building. It’s a communication tool, perhaps used with a staff from the same department or business. It’s an effort to show how messages can get warped and changed and, in the end, where that can create significant problems during a project.

(To this point, my guess is the game of telephone and what I’m saying about it are hardly surprises. As I stated early on, turns out you know the game.)

I’m becoming more convinced each day that social media is the environment where today’s editions of the telephone game are played. Places where thoughts and actions go to be misinterpreted, switched around a bit, and ultimately shared for reasons beyond what any of us could possibly have intended when we first offered any item.

The other day I logged on to Facebook. And… something was wrong.

Happens. Any of us that have used Facebook understand this one. Messages aren’t posting correctly. Features seem disabled. Things are not working properly, or at least not in the fashion we all are familiar with. The two solutions are obvious enough that we attempt them without much care or thought. Log out and then back in to see if it clears up. If not, then either deal with it as we scroll around or leave for a bit and check in later.

On that particular day, pictures weren’t loading properly for me. My profile/page images were gone. Links were marked as broken. Visually things were off. Most other days, my reaction would have bordered on a shoulder shrug level of excitement. But, I could see Terry’s profile, and it sure looked like everything was loading properly for her account. So…

Stupidly, I started playing around. I began attempting to upload a new cover photo, and when that didn’t work, I tried changing my profile picture. I could navigate through the options and various windows, and even see the potential selections, but once I made the move to confirm a selection everything just sort of moved into disappearing and not progressing.

“Oh well”… shoulder shrug… and I logged off.

Many hours later I returned, and things had gone a bit nutty. I had likes and comments and messages.

One of the pictures I had selected was from Disney World. I was getting notes from people asking if Terry and I were in Florida, and what we had planned for our visit. I was getting feedback from friends that were in or headed to Orlando, wondering if we could meet up since they figured both of us were in town. I even got two e-mails from different friends, trying to reach me to see where I was on the Disney World property. Both of them—seriously, BOTH of them—claimed to have seen my photo within minutes of it being posted, knew where it was taken, and they happened to be in that area. So, they rushed over to surprise me, didn’t see Terry or I, and wanted to know if we were still located nearby or had firm plans that evening.

It was crazy. The funniest parts for me came from two things: (1) The profile picture that had sparked the Disney reaction was taken five years ago. (2) The other photo… the cover photo… involved the Sydney Opera House, created a few questions of its own, and happened to be some fifteen-plus years old.

Neither image included Terry or I in any way. There were no indications on either of our pages that we had roamed in any way outside of our home zip code. And yet, picture posted, there it was (my words): “Guys! Stay still for a minute. We were literally a hundred yards from you when you took the picture at Disney World ten minutes ago and you were gone by the time we arrived. Where are you?”

I suppose it says something about our friends that many of them do know we don’t check in and post details like travel information on our social media pages. So, amateur detectives at work, hats off to them for recognizing an image from a spot in Disney World. And, it means a lot that they were trying to find us to spend some time together. (I do like my friends.)

I started this essay by talking about the game of telephone. Covered the idea of messages twisting and communication breaking down. I went on to talk about social media. And yes, this story moves along to another level.

A short time after I spent a bit of time laughing at Facebook comments and returning details, Terry’s phone rang. It was one of our neighbors. They happened to see on Facebook that we were out of town, saw the mail truck stop at our driveway an hour or so before while making its usual way along the road, and wanted to know if we needed her to pick up our mail while we were away.

Don’t tell me people aren’t watching us more than ever. Even innocently and well-intended. I knew it was true before. I have proof it’s true now. But in many ways, it’s more than that…

People are sweeping up even the must subtle of clues and information, tucking it away and then running with it. It’s not that any of their intentions are malicious or even all that misguided. But, the information at the end is an incredible distortion of the initial presentation.

Friend of mine used to love this expression: “Even Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And I believe that’s as true today as it was the first time I heard it. (Unless, of course, someone posts a picture of a cigar on Twitter.)


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