Crab: Internet and Society

Inspiration: The Twitter Trap by Bill Keller, (now former, as of last week) executive editor of NY Times
See also, every Virginia Heffernan piece over 2000 words of the last 15 years

Remember the two fundamental changes in society that the Internet has wrought:

1) Information and data is now universally and near-instantaneously accessible and can be perfectly and cheaply copied.

2) The now main information path, i.e. the Internet, fundamentally is a request-based medium. I.e. You must request before you receive; aka not broadcast. (See, the underlying http protocol.)

Criticisms of websites like twitter and Facebook or foursquare must be filtered thru the above principles to figure out whether an effect of a new technology/website is 1) really just a consequence of the Internet, 2) really just a consequence of humans being humans, 3) or something actually new as a result of the website/tech.

The central claim of Keller’s piece, shared by more than one fuddy duddy: Twitter is harming public discourse because it dumbs down discourse, reduces conversation to sound bites, and facilitates gossip and rumor. At its best, it encourages navel gazing e.g. “ate a sandwich today lolz.”

Except it doesn’t. Twitter is just a message service, connected to SMS messaging, where users are connected by request as followers. All messages are public by default and are limited to an arbitrary character limit. What about this inherently does violence to human communication?

Technology is a value-neutral force of change. Generally, the hobgoblins and boogie men that commentators imagine– whether in the illusory socialization on Facebook, or the maligned idiocy of Twitter, is directly attributable to the underlying user of technology: human people. Those foul smelling oily smears. To paraphrase that aphorism about guns: if something on the Internet sucks, it’s because people suck.

In this case, I think Twitter seems stupid because  real people are actually just dumb and have dumb conversations. Real people have short, simple conversations laced with swear words and slander. And often talk about idiotic shit like what they did over the weekend, or drapes, or gosh darn it that wacky weather.  I’m sorry, but that’s just people.  Twitter only enables these people to talk quickly and publicly (See Change Effect #1 above).  The much-quoted 140 characters of twitter messages is not a limit; that’s a relief of a burden to say more. Many personal blogs die and fade away because their authors quickly realize how little of what they have to say requires long prose. But 140 characters? Yeah that is about the right expectation for civilians and barely literate celebrities and sports stars.

Looking at the specific Keller piece itself, his first mistake is to compare the printing press, one of the four greatest inventions in history to a fucking 5 year old website.  He goes on to short-change the effect of the western printing press. Those great feats of memorization that Keller bemoans the loss of were only lost by an elite educated few. The printing press gave written works– previously handmade, expensive, and accessible only to nobility and the religious elite– to everybody.  Enabled the spread of ideas and thoughts worldwide.   Such a benefit gained makes it seem almost petty to rue the loss of memorization of a few bald clerics.

Keller’s second mistake is to think great conversation happens on a regular basis. My suspicion is that Keller’s idea of conversation involves a dinner party in a Central Park West penthouse, where participants take turns speaking in whole paragraphs about Kant and the categorical imperative. Twitter exposes Keller to real people, and it shocks him. How else do you explain a grown man that is shocked SHOCKED that people have conversations that are, as Keller artfully described it, “reductive” and “redundant”.

Lastly, Keller seems to assume the rise of Twitter means this is the exclusive means of communication to replace all others. Is it not obvious that Twitter is just one form of communication, with its own appropriate time and place?Just as people negotiate when a face to face meeting is appropriate over a phone call (e.g. break-ups, condolences, job interviews), people too will learn to fit new means of messaging and communication into societal fabric and etiquette. To paraphrase a line from Jurassic Park, human socialization finds a way.

Honestly, I think old people take this “social media” shit way too seriously.  I guarantee you that no one under 30 actually believes they have 1,428 friends as according to Facebook.  No, people understand they are merely connected to 1,428 “friends” because that’s what Facebook calls them.  The metaphors provided by websites like Facebook, Twitter, Google use imperfect jargon to help relate new technology to existing social protocol/mores, but no one actually thinks the metaphors replace the social mores themselves.  See also, Jonathan Franzen’s head-in-ass rumination on the facebook “like”s.

To end, I just want to say that whenever someone gripes about change, whether wrought by technology or otherwise, I like to think hard about whatever is being lost or changed is really that holy or sacred, or whether someone is merely complaining about change on its face. Change is a constancy in life, especially in a modern life. And efforts are well spent documenting and understanding; but wasted, lamenting.

This could be organized better, but you get the idea.

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