What people usually do when they sign up to Twitter:

  1. This is so naff. I mean, hello tweeps!
  2. Where do I start? Where do I find good people to follow? Is it really just what people had for breakfast?
  3. Oh I get it. This is kind of cool.
  4. You need this.

Maybe someone will formalise it into some kind of social media law. Right now it’s more like a working hypothesis. People sign up and step through a relatively predictable series of states before ultimately becoming evangelists.

(Behind the scenes picture at last year’s Bonn climate change talks – a familiar scene)

I’ve been wondering about the evangelism/reflection balance in social media for a while.

A Bill Keller piece in the New York Times got me thinking:

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on nytimes.com, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

Keller, who edits the NYT, attracted heavy blog and social media criticism. For example, Gizmodo: New York Times Editor is a Horrible Troll Who Doesn’t Understand The Modern World.

But I reckon there’s something to it, and seeing ABC’s Natasha Mitchell talking Twitter in Brisbane a few weeks ago, I could hear she was getting even closer.

I like that Natasha – who presents Radio National’s All In The Mind – uses it as a crucial part of her role as a science journalist. But I love that she is not an evangelist. In a crowd of social media geeks at the #media140 conference, she could talk clearly about who you’re interacting with on those social media. And while it’s an influential, interested group, it’s far from representative.

I’ve been on Twitter long enough that my followings have built up cumulatively, a few a week, to something that looks impressive on a cursory glance. Long enough that it’s really a big part of my life, and that I sometimes put hashtags into emails or refer to people by their Twitter handles instead of their names. Long enough to see it appearing in my job description from time to time.

But… talk about Twitter tends to be either reductive criticism by people who don’t get it, or loved up recommendations from social media evangelists, which is what we all become, eventually.

From that Gizmodo post:

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.

We don’t simply use new technologies, we become immersed in them. We live in an era of information assault. Data is everywhere. Ads come at us from all sides. Email pours into our boxes. The Web, and television, and radio and, yes, fucking newspapers spew information at us like, well, like newspapers once spewed from printing presses before they began drifting into irrelevance.

Memorization was once a tool for preserving information. But today the more important skill is the ability to process and filter it. To quickly decide what needs to be analyzed and responded to, and what ought to be ignored. That’s not a cognitive loss, it’s an evolutionary advancement.

Almost two years ago, I was on a panel about “slashies” – people who do more than one creative job, as in actor/model, or in my case, editor/broadcaster/communicator. I felt a bit weird about this slashie role. I already felt like it wasn’t working that well – to be a seriously great radio maker, or writer, or painter, or whatever it is you do, needs focus.

There’s an obvious value to firing your synapses with stacks of interesting, different experiences and ideas. But while preparing to chair the session at Creative Sydney, I read up on the research into multitasking. Every time you swap tasks, it costs. Concentration and focus are the main casualties, switching subjects means constantly dumping the contents of your working memory. The Pavlovian experience of social media amplifies this, massively. Switching, constantly. Forgetting what you’re working on. You’re firing with ideas, but are you following through on them?

In many ways, the rise of social media has made us all slashies. But I hope that’s not the end, because at the end of the day we’re still the same people, effectively, as we were decades before the internet. Our brains aren’t evolving as fast as the chip’s evolution. This technology might enable a whole lot of new behaviours, but…

…our brains haven’t been rewired, maybe it’s happening, and there’s evidence they’re a lot more mobile than we thought. But the really complex issues we have to face – climate, population, development, etc – are complex, they’re hard to explain, but easy to reduce down to meaningless catchphrases. They’re easy to take sides on, but harder to find a real middle ground and develop shared understanding. Twitter forces people to take sides, condensing an argument down to 140 characters forces you to strip out the nuance. It has the potential to bring people together, but because you make your own filter on the global Twitter stream, you tend to zero into a bubble of self reinforcing arguments.

Twitter’s powerful. But who are you actually talking to/with? are you just endlessly restating and fixing your position, or do you find time/space for deeper thinking?