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Summary:

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller says he is concerned that Twitter is decreasing our attention spans and generally making us stupid — but he misses the crucial point that Twitter and other social media are just tools, and that their benefits outweigh their disadvantages.

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At the risk of making it look like I am beating up on the New York Times — after my post about how it fails to link out to other sources in its news stories — I can’t let Bill Keller’s recent thoughts about Twitter pass without comment. In a nutshell, Keller, the newspaper’s executive editor, suggested in his latest column for the New York Times magazine that Twitter and social media in general are somehow “making us stupid.” I would argue that not only is he wrong, but that Twitter is actually a positive force in some pretty important ways.

Keller says he is concerned about the effects that all the tools of our modern digital age are having on us — both our brains and our lives. He’s worried that the ability to look everything up on Google could be harming our ability to remember things, that social-media tools are decreasing our attention spans, and that Twitter in particular is the “enemy of contemplation” (Keller, a master of understatement, also says that when he finally allowed his 13-year-old to set up a Facebook account, he felt “as if I had passed [her] a pipe full of crystal meth”). The NYT editor says he is afraid that:

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.

If Keller’s fears sound familiar, that might be because they are very similar to some criticisms of the Internet that author Nicholas Carr helped promote last year, in conjunction with his new book The Shallows. Carr marshalled some scientific research into brain chemistry and argued that the Internet is effectively making us stupid, shortening our attention spans, and decreasing our ability to retain information due to rampant multitasking (as Vaughan Bell at Slate has noted, the same kinds of criticisms have been made about everything from the printing press to the telephone).

Twitter: It’s about the network

As I wrote at the time, it’s not really fair to say that the Internet is making us stupid or smart, just as it doesn’t make much sense to say that Twitter is making us stupid. Both are just tools, and a platform for network effects of all kinds. If you want to use Twitter to find other people who share your love for stupid jokes or racist banter, you can do that. But it doesn’t cause people to be stupid or racist, any more than it caused the revolution in Egypt. It simply makes it easier for people to connect, for better or worse.

When it comes to the actual effects of Twitter, I think Mat Honan at Gizmodo hits the nail on the head when he suggests that not only are social tools and networks not making us stupid, they are arguably helping us figure out how to cope with the changing nature of communication and media in a digital age:

The thing is not that we’re dumber, or that our cognitive advance has slowed or reversed. It’s that we need different mental abilities to process information and the modern world.

Like Honan, I think we need tools like Twitter and Facebook simply as a way of coping with the onslaught of information that is coming at us, and to help us filter it and make sense of it. And yes, we need journalists — or whatever they choose to call themselves — to help us do that too, as I have argued before. And speaking of journalists, New York Times Bits blogger Nick Bilton has a good antidote to his executive editor’s anti-Twitter piece, in which he talks about how he uses it as a tool to become smarter.

Social is as social does

Keller also questions whether social networks are really “social.” He says:

I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter… Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation.

This is another common criticism of social networks — that they are not as real or as worthwhile or valuable as real-world connections, and that they are somehow replacing our social connections in real life. This simply isn’t the case, in my experience. Instead, as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci suggested in a response to Keller, there is research that shows that those who are more connected socially online are also more likely to be socially active and connected offline. The truth is that Twitter and Facebook and other online networks add to and enrich our real-world networks.

The bottom line for me is that the NYT editor should do more than just not be afraid of Twitter or Facebook — he should be using them as much as he can, and helping his daughter figure out how to use them too. These are the printing presses of a new century, and the changes that they are producing in media and society in general are not going to wait around for Bill Keller or the New York Times to approve of them.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rosauro Ochoa

  1. And guns don’t kill people, people do.

    Twitter is the domain of the shallow and the simplistic. Sure, there are some people that post links to more, but I can’t believe you really think 99% of the Twitterverse use the app that way.

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    1. I don’t understand how you can judge the medium and not the message? It’s simply a communication platform.

      If by “Shallow and simplistic” you mean limited to 140 characters, then you don’t get it. I have heard this argument before, but it’s like anything else in life – if you follow people that are in to the things you are, you will get interesting info and exposure to new ideas. If you follow shallow, boring people, you will see shallow boring content.

      I have met a lot of interesting people through Twitter, maybe you should give it a shot.

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    2. I didn’t say most people use Twitter that way — I said it’s possible to use it that way. And those who use it for stupid things, well… what can I say :-) Thanks for the comment though.

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  2. It’s not that simple:
    It’s just not what Bill Keller thinks it is, they really need to read up on modern information theory, see links post.

    Sharing Information Corrupts Wisdom of Crowds[1]
    “Opinion polls and the mass media largely promote information feedback and therefore trigger convergence of how we judge the facts,” they wrote. The wisdom of crowds is valuable, but used improperly it “creates overconfidence in possibly false beliefs.”

    1. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/05/wisdom-of-crowds-decline/

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  3. Right on – best thing I’ve read all week Matthew. Tweeted and routed via FB and LI as well. regards, Jennifer

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    1. Thanks, Jennifer — much appreciated.

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  4. So when an otherwise smart and innovative person gets caught up in checking Facebook and Twitter updates every few minutes, to the detriment of her ability to produce smart and innovative ideas, how else would you classify it? And please don’t attempt to deny that happens to people.

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    1. Heh, then I guess they weren’t that smart in the first place, if they cant manage their time effectively.

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  5. I have no doubt that succumbing to indoor plumbing has radically diminished my ability to squat over a hole, but I think I can live with myself.

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  6. Frederick Harris Friday, May 20, 2011

    I disagree with Om on this. Keller is right on. Thinking about things is in effect “talking to ourselves inside our heads. When we habitually…emphasis on habitually… use shallowing tools like Twitter, we therby (and prematurely) dumb down the narrative process by which thinking an talking inside our heads transforms into, for example, reflection and critical thinking. I agree with Om that the shallowing tools are just tools. But, having said that, Om’s “technology is neutral” argument requires a rethink.

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  7. A fair enough claim, however why stop at Social Media, quite frankly if that statement is going to be made then it should really be, “Technology is making us stupid!”.

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