Digital Idolatry And The Limits Of Social Media

Digital Idolatry And The Limits Of Social Media

What is social media doing to our memory and relationships? How will technologists solve for its shortcomings in the coming years?

Plus Aziz
  • 18 may 2011


Discussing the shortcomings of social media should not automatically be taken dismissed as an attack on technology. In a recent article titled The Twitter Trap, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller accounts for how early printing technology has weakened human memory.

We’re cyborgs in that we rely entirely on various tools and machines to perform jobs, to communicate, to express how we feel. The essential question becomes are we ‘outsourcing our brains to the cloud?’

The new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

Keller’s main question is: as socialized beings, what are we unlearning when Facebook “friendships” and Twitter buzz displace “real rapport and real conversation?” He quotes UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork “Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happens.”  So what types of decisions are you making and problems are you solving when you’re on your favorite social networks?

Taking the opposite side of the spectrum, Jenna Wortham reflects on how social networks have strengthened her yearning for in-person interaction with her friends:

For me, the exact opposite has happened. The stream of pleasantries, links and comments that I exchange online have only served to heighten my craving for in-person interactions at the end of the day….Wishing a friend happy birthday on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr doesn’t stop me from showing up at their party.”

She then makes a great point about how its become easier to introduce ourselves to influential content producers :

Facebook and Twitter make us more curious to meet and chat with the people we’ve encountered online… I can’t imagine I would have been bold enough to introduce myself or strike up a conversation had we not built up a kind of camaraderie on Twitter in the weeks before.

Mr.Keller does see the development of social media networks as a great thing; he works for a publisher that was quick to adopt emerging technology. But his view is also precocious, reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” Keller goes on to describe social media as “aggressive distractions,” pointing out that Twitter “demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation,” fostering a consistent “failure to connect.” To what extent is this true or false? Is this inherent to social media or an outcome of the fact that it’s still in its infancy?

Thus far, both the Egyptian revolution earlier this year and Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign demonstrate how social media can be effective in driving towards a focused goal (i.e. vote, donate, meet here); but the momentum quickly fizzles out. Such case studies demonstrate that ‘radical change’ cannot be sustained by ‘radical technology’ despite the fact that the physical and virtual world are intimately connected and mutually supportive of each other.  Many believe that it’s still politics as usual in Washington D.C. and that Egypt’s desire for democracy is significantly challenged.

Thus, the point still remains to be disproved, that however you use social media, if you want to generate critical thinking, see progressive initiatives actualize, garner heated debates with constructive outcomes, or nurture deep discussion, take the conversation offline or at least get on the phone. This can be seen as either the crux of social media’s limit or a fundamental challenge that creative technologists will solve for in the coming years.

New York Times:”The Twitter Trap”

The New Yorker: “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”

New York Times: “Does Facebook Help or Hinder  Offline Friendship?”

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