Can loved up evangelists learn to reflect?

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, 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?

[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.