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August 28, 2010

Social media and its effects on the intellect

The advance of social media discourse could be harshly described as a continual distraction, containing noisy encumbrances of rapidly-sampled psychotic diatribes from multiple silos. This, it is said, is one of the profound questions about the narcissism of the modern psyche.

In Nick Carr’s recent book, “The Shallows”, he explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, “promoting deep and creative thought”, while the ethic of the internet is a post-industrialist mentality of “speed and efficiency” and “optimised production and consumption”. He argues we have become ever more adept at “scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection”.

The cultural criticism of this book sparkles with vignettes about how Friedrich Nietzsche wrestled with a typewriter and how Sigmund Freud dissected the brains of sea creatures. But in “The Stuff of Thought”, Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology, believes human beings are more than capable of adapting to the current flow of constant digital information and stimulus, just as they adapted to other forms of media.

So, which is it? Do we control the amount of information that we absorb and, if so, what benefits do we actually derive from social media discourse?

This is taken at random on a Saturday afternoon from The Nation’s website, one of Thailand’s English-based national newspapers. And we find the following: veen_NT: @lickmymango your typo is terrible but LMAO. veen_NT: @babyfishie I hope not but will be on alert;-) veen_NT: @qandrew lol- me bad. need more chillax;-) babyfishie: @veen_NT Are you going to be a designated driver again tonight?

Breaking news at its most profound. And contemplative and reflective? Take this from Stephen Fry: “V touching article about what it means to play football with your father. Not that I ever did!”

New forms of media, Pinker says, “have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fibre”. And he takes issue with Carr that Twitter and the internet are making people dumber by literally rewiring their brains, so that we can no longer think deep thoughts.”

If you have an issue with not playing football with your father in your mid-fifties, Carr seems to have the upper hand at this stage.

But, on the other hand, Pinker sees the internet and social media such as Twitter as digital distractions that are not necessarily making society dumber. In fact, he concludes by saying: “far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart”.

A Microsoft tweet alludes to agree with him: “Want to personalize your Win 7 desktop? Make a rotating slide show of your favorite images.”

Slideshow, by the way, is one word and judging from the way teenagers write their tweets, you would think none of them, even university graduates, have spent more than an hour or so on spelling and grammar.

Then there’s an article by Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times, “Twitter is changing how we interact with the world”, in which The Guardian writes: “She describes sharing a beautiful moment with her daughter, but how her experience became split between enjoying the moment and the impulse to split off and tweet about it.”

Now you have to admit that’s a sad indictment about the compulsiveness, a psychosis almost, of social media interaction.

Further, it goes on: “Back in the 1950s, the sociologist Erving Goffman famously argued that all of life is performance: we act out a role in every interaction, adapting it based on the nature of the relationship or context at hand.

“Twitter has extended that metaphor to include aspects of our experience that used to be considered off-set: eating pizza in bed, reading a book in the tub, thinking a thought anywhere, flossing.

“Effectively, it makes the greasepaint permanent, blurring the lines not only between public and private but also between the authentic and contrived self. If all the world was once a stage, it has now become a reality TV show: we mere players are not just aware of the camera; we mug for it.”

Shakespeare would be surely moved by the metaphor. And reality shows are an abhorrence tantamount to warbling Thai karaoke at three o’clock in the morning.

So I suspect she’s referring to narcissism when The Guardian continues with: “Each of us chooses what we present to the outside world, crafting a public identity – a identity that we want other people to see. Every tweet, every Facebook posting, every Flickr upload is part of reinforcing the image we want people to see. While she says she can’t give Twitter up, she questions the expense of that compulsion to post: ‘When every thought is externalised, what becomes of insight? When we reflexively post each feeling, what becomes of reflection? When friends become fans, what happens to intimacy?'”

And then, into the arena comes the businesss bully. Let’s be honest, the real reason I’m writing about this is not to internally elucidate personal identity or provide members of my own race with any kind of insight and knowledge but, cynically, to keep pace with my competitors on Google. So when I read about the meaningful business merits attributed to its cause I tend to skirm, as some might be doing already.

For my next trick, stage left comes Brian Solis, author of the book “Engage! The Complete Guide for Brands and Businesses to Build, Cultivate, and Measure Success in the New Web”, in which he states that social media has “democratised influence, forever changing the way businesses communicate with customers and the way customers affect the decisions of their peers.

“With platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, anyone can now find and connect with others who share similar interests, challenges, and beliefs-creating communities that shape and steer the perception of brands. Without engagement in these communities, we miss major opportunities to shape our marketing messages.”

Belief-creating? Sounds alarmingly evangelical.

Personally, I don’t really know what to think. I use Twitter because I understand that Google likes websites that tweet. Because of Facebook I’m meeting an old friend next weekt I haven’t seen in past 30 years. So neither platform can be completely discounted.

And I can still just about digest an Ian McEwan novel during a tropical rainstorm, so my input into the social media scene has not “dumbed me down” as Mr Carr and his peers would like to have us believe.

V9 Design and Build ( produce tasteful web design in Bangkok, Thailand, including ecommerce shopping cart solutions, with functionality that allows owners to set up and maintain their online stores.