Thursday, May 12, 2011

Digital Navel Lint

The other night I did something that I more than occasionally do: I had a thought that was burning a hole in my cerebral cortex that I felt desperate to share, but decided that I was too tired, drunk and emotional to attempt to put it down into words that would convey the depth of my feeling, the confusion of my thoughts, and the subtle fluctuations of my state of mind. Perhaps it was laziness, or perhaps it was the only wise thing that I did last night, but I am glad that I showed restraint.

I have frequently thought that the internet should have a breathalyzer to prevent unwise Facebook posts or irresponsible purchases from occurring late at night. Last night, I am pleased to say that all that it took to halt me in my tracks was the recognition of the vast reach of social networks and the internet in general. I believe that read somewhere that if the pen is mightier than the sword, then the printing press is like an atomic bomb. That being the case, what is the internet? A tool that effectively has a greater reach than print, unrestrained by circulation numbers and printing and shipping costs, available to nearly everyone (in developed countries) regardless of intelligence, ability, or sobriety.

I suppose that if one stopped and thought about this, it would be easy to get alarmed by this, and indeed it is much easier for more insidious notions to be shared with likeminded psychopaths than in times when lone nuts tended to be, well, lone, and isolated geographically. However, I am simply more concerned with the rest of the population that will be more inclined to use this technology in ways that are more indulgent than outwardly destructive (and I think that is most of us).

While it can be argued that the internet is a convergence medium, presenting audio, video, still images, and text in equal importance (and I must add that it is quite remarkable that video and unaccompanied audio can coexist on one medium) I would say that the main thrust of the internet is text. E-mail, status updates, tweets, blogs, etc. I don’t think that this is a controversial opinion or that I am saying anything that isn’t widely known, but I will argue that, while it is assumed to be a Read-Write (RW) medium (to borrow Lawrence Lessig’s use of disc drive terminology as applied to a medium) as opposed to traditional publishing, which would be considered Read-Only (RO), I propose that it lends itself to being a Write Only (WO) medium, in which the conversation is entered less in the spirit of a give and take, than to indulge in the novelty or airing one’s opinions, feelings, and breakfast choices to a wide audience who pays the minimum amount of attention to this information simply to find an opening for them to drop in their ten cents.

Of course, we all read how Facebook was used to organize protests in Egypt and, don’t get me wrong, I believe that this extraordinary circumstance was probably the best use to which social networking can be put. In fact, I would say that it makes nearly all of what I post seem silly and irrelevant. That said, what happened in Egypt was indicative of the breadth of Facebook, not its depth. I would suppose, however, that most Facebook users (at least in America) do not have the overthrow of governments as their main intention (yes, I have read a tremendous number of politically charged posts, but they were of course sandwiched between posts of cute kitten videos and movie quotes).

I hesitate to say unequivocally that the medium completely dictates the content, but I will argue that 420 characters is not enough to expound on anything in any detail, and with Twitter that number is even less. The only thing that can be done with that would be platitudes, slogans, and trivia, usually in horribly truncated and corrupted language. So now we have the ability to publish far and wide poorly considered, hastily written, fragmented thoughts. So while text seems to have a greater presence in our communication than it has since the advent of the telegraph, telephone, and television, it seems to have been done great injury by these other media which favor the image or sound bite (can you tell I am re-reading Neil Postman right now?). Thus we inundate each other with messages that mean little now in the grand scheme of things, and will mean even less later.

Come to think of it, perhaps I need not have bothered censoring myself. I do think that it was a moment that I should have kept for myself anyway without feeling the need to validate it by sharing it with unseen people. However, if I wrote something and posted it, I don’t think there would have been much harm. The post would have easily sunk like a rock, perhaps after a few people would post an emoticon or two before going back to talking about their breakfasts and weekends, and I wouldn’t have blamed them. The posts that I find have the longest life-spans are the ones that enable people to share their own perspectives. I don’t think that this is entirely narcissism, and I do believe there is value to interactivity, particularly when it comes to discussion of news and current events. However, there is a considerable difference between posts that encourage debate and force us to clarify and defend our opinions and those which attempt to make other people gaze at our navels.

There has been quite a bit said about being cautious as far as what we post about ourselves online, arguing that nothing on the internet truly disappears (if you don’t believe me, try out the “Wayback Machine” on, and we are supposed to be careful of posting things that will come back to haunt us later. But perhaps we should also contemplate why we wish to air intimate details about ourselves and, on the other hand, be concerned about how much time is spent posting things that will prove to be unworthy of remembering.

For further reading:
Lanier, J. (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Knoph

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin

Lessig, L. (2008) Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: Penguin

1 comment:

Gabriel Barbaro said...

Nice blogpost Roger! While I agree with most of your assertions and thoughts about how things are.. eckhem... "trending" on the web, I do have to say several things about Twitter. First of all, I urge you to join Twitter. I think you will soon find that multitudes of educated folks are very active on the site. I've found that my own experience on Twitter has varied greatly from what I initially thought it was all about! There are spirited discussions/exchanges about nearly anything: politics to links to well-written blogs and ebooks! In fact, in a somewhat ironic move, I am going to post a link on my Twitter feed to this very blogpost. Let's see what happens! By the way, my Twitter handle is @GabrielBarbaro - see you on Twitter!:)