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» The Dark Side of Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces from Gumption
Recently, I've been disturbed to read about some significant frontchannel disturbances arising through the use of Twitter backchannels to heckle speakers at conferences. Having finished off my last blog with an example of the beneficial ways that Twitt... [Read More]

» The Commoditization of Twitter Followers from Gumption
I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. I see - and have increasingly experienced - many benefits to its use, especially with respect to its propensity to foster meaningful new connections with consequential strangers and acquaintances. However, ... [Read More]


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Posts of this kind beg for a deeper exchange. It's something I've also felt growing, the nagging sense that social media, especially Twitter, encourages us to be socially shallow, although to say that out loud sounds snobbish and patronizing. I was a little offended by an excerpt from Andrew Keen's new work, The Cult of the Amateur, for exactly the same reason -- but I was on the other side there, taking it personally that I am one of those "amateurs" as a blogger that he is talking about. Where Twitter fits in for me is simply be able to quickly telegraph to others something they might also find interesting, including my own blog posts, which, I think like you, Joe, continues to be home base. In a couple of cases, Twitter has even led to more in depth connections. Moving from Twitter, to blog comments to personal email -- well, the email has felt very intimate by comparison. A strange thought!

In the end, I really don't think the explosion of social media will do much harm and could do some really good things, especially if it leads to real, not "ambient intimacy" as defined here. What I think we all know from experience is that initial conversation in no matter what context (except the odd stranger in a bar)tends to be shallow. We sift through a ton of possible connections and then choose to go deeper with a few. There isn't anything that stops anyone from making deeper connections via the net. When my father died earlier this year, a fellow blogger sent me a kind email saying, "Listen, if you want to talk, let me know," meaning "talk on the phone." It was a kind gesture and only involves the same old thing that disconnects people -- which is the risk of any interaction -- the fear of rejection. Maybe a tool such as Twitter reduces that fear, and maybe in reducing that fear it helps some people ultimately overcome it or at least take more risks. Other tools move it that direction in different ways: online Communities of Practice, for example, or for that matter, eHarmony (I'm living proof). But I'm guessing that social media in general really hasn't helped us overcome such anxieties in any unique way. They may, in fact, simply gloss over them, leaving a version of connection more than the deeper stuff. After all, it is still up to us as individuals to make the move toward genuine openness, toward friendship, toward any kind of meaningful "I-Thou" exchange. I'm not sure social media have conquered that one on our behalf at all -- at least not so far.

What I hear as the concern is that tools such as Twitter work somehow to replace intimacy and our desire for the real thing with simply an impression of it. The fact that a celebrity has a million point five follows says "fantasy" all over it. Not too different from buying magazines at the supermarket. So will that make people different and change the culture or does it just reveal the culture that is. I'd say, "the culture that is," in which case I have a different question -- that relates to what I've said above -- which is how can social media facilitate the deepest levels of human connectedness? Or is that too much to ask from mere technology?

Joe McCarthy

@danoestreich: thank you for answering the call for a deeper exchange! I have not read Andrew Keen's book, but from your brief description, it sounds like the antithesis of a Aldous Huxley quote I recently heard - and was inspired by (and wrote about, in my post on the past, present and future of green) - at a Lawrence Lessig talk, regarding the pitfalls of [over-]professionalization:

"In the days before machinery men and women who wanted to amuse themselves were compelled, in their humble way, to be artists. Now they sit still and permit professionals to entertain them by the aid of machinery. It is difficult to believe that general artistic culture can flourish in this atmosphere of passivity."

I suspect that the use of social media reflects the same kinds of trends we've seen in other technological advancements, e.g., the over-use of different fonts and colors when word processing became available, and the over-use of animations in Powerpoint. Both of these tools have helped "amateurs" better express themselves - though there are still those who abuse / mis-use some of their features - and I think they have ultimately made the world a better place. Your comment helps me adopt a more positive outlook on the prospects for other widely adopted social media tools (like Twitter).

I'm glad to read of your deep[er] connections through Twitter. I have yet to form any deep connections through the Twitterverse (or, as a commenter on Simon Dumenco's article put it, the "statusphere"), though I have forged some very deep connections (e.g., to you) through the blogosphere. Your experience may help me open up to more experimentation through this new[er] platform.

Your question about changing the culture vs. revealing the culture that is reminds of of an inspiring quote someone recently shared with me - and which I shared on Twitter - by Berthold Brecht:

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

I don't equate Twitter with art (or [most] tweets with art), but my fondest hope for Twitter - and social media, in general - is that it does evolve into a hammer with which to shape our culture. Whether and how it can help facilitate [deeper] human connectedness remains to be seen ... and shaped.


In my very unqualified opinion, you guys just overthink this stuff. If people need to fill some void in their lives by Tweeting all the time, then let them Tweet away, unexamined by such serious thinkers/bloggers as yourselves. Don't we all have something better to do?

Joe McCarthy

Ah, touché! I'm reminded of a Bertrand Russell quote: "Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time" (I wonder if Russell would be a Twitter user if he were alive today).

In The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler offers up the promise of a networked information society in which we might see the emergence of a new folk culture that is "more critical, ... self-reflective and participatory" ... and while participation is increasing, I keep hoping we'll see more of the critical and self-reflective aspects emerge. Benkler talks about the qualitative change brought about by the prospect of becoming a [potential] speaker (e.g., someone who can produce content on the web), and how it changes the way we listen to what we hear ... and, by corollary, the way we read what we write. I'm not sure we're seeing a change in a positive direction, nor whether "the practice of producing culture makes us all more sophisticated readers, viewers and listeners, as well as more engaged makers" [thus far].

I could go on and on about Benkler and The Wealth of Networks (a signal that another blog post may be in order), but I'll end [this thread] with a passage that Benkler quotes from Eben Moglen's article on Anarchism Triumphant, in which the explanation of Moglen's Metaphorical Corollary to Faraday's Law includes this relevant observation: "It's an emergent property of connected human minds that they create things for one another's pleasure and to conquer their uneasy sense of being too alone."

Returning to the issue of wasting time and filling voids, I'm reminded of some reflections on Living Without a Goal: Mattering Without Being Useful, in which I'd recounted a passage that disturbed me: "when you try to identify the use of your entire life, you are asking to be used." I admit that I'm addicted to usefulness ... and filling voids.

Finally, I'm also reminded of a Socrates quote, "The unexamined life is not worth living", and I suppose I have been adopting / promoting a corollary: "The unexamined thought is not worth posting". I'll [over]think this line of thought further before posting more ...


Joe, thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

Amy, thanks for showing up here. But...why don't you tell us what you really think? ( ;>)

Both of you, have a nice day.


For the majority, twitter is about killing time and gaining pleasure in doing so. It's an age old syndrome. It's a new age means and medium. But on the positive side, it's also the easiest means of directly connecting to the whole world, every 6.5+ billion of us for free, where else can you do that?

Joe McCarthy

Praveen: nice to read from you!

I agree with your assessment of Twitter being a new means to accomplish old, well-established ends. However, the ease with which one can "connect" is part of the problem. I've long believed that any sufficiently large signal is indistinguishable from noise (riffing on Stanley Clarke), and given that individual tweets are relatively small, I would now add a corollary that any sufficiently large number of signals is indistinguishable from noise.

As for your observations about the "6.5+ billion" users and "free", Simon Dumenco had some [more] interesting observations about The Coming End of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook Socialism, with the subtitle "Thank God for Tech Moguls Who Redistribute VC Wealth So We Can Cybersocialize Freely. For Now, That Is". The article was prompted by Cardinal Sean Brody's invitation to [an estimated one billion] Catholics to use Twitter as a prayer platform, and went on to note "you've got to admit that at some level the boys at Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are actively choosing to redistribute the wealth. They're taking money from venture capitalists and deploying it so that millions of people far beyond Silicon Valley can get something for nothing". So Twitter is easy, widely available and free ... but it's not clear how much longer that last feature will be part of the mix.

Joe McCarthy

A quick followup: Praveen's comment prompted to me to dig through the archives of danah boyd's blog to re-find a post she'd made on valuing inefficiencies and unreliability, that addresses the issue I have with the ease and availability of Twitter. I amended my original blog post with an update including a relevant quote from danah's post.

Caitlin at Backlinks Checker

Very well said! People are using it in their own preference. Some to twit, to promote or some to just listen to what's up. It's a really great network.

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