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Tweeting Ourselves to Death

If I could make a list of five books that would be required reading for everyone on earth, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is the first book I would put on that list. Postman explains how the medium of television has by its very nature caused rational discourse to be severely dumbed-down over the last century, using examples from educational programming to religious broadcasting to TV news. Prior to the invention of television, discourse was dominated by the written word which inherently appeals to rationality. Television, with its sounds and images, inherently appeals to the passions. Postman’s work is not only profound but prophetic, as it was published in 1985 before the era of 24-hour cable news, the internet, blogs, and Twitter. What would Postman say about the dominant forms of media in today’s world?

The online universe is filled with all kinds of content, from written words to sounds and images and very often combinations of all three. If the way we think is determined by the media through which we obtain our information, then those of us who spend significant chunks of our time online must actually have different thought patterns than anyone who existed before us. The question is whether this mish-mash of media is an improvement over the old paradigm or just another step towards a culture in which the primary motivation for all acquisition of information is pure amusement.

For a long time I held back my urge to write my thoughts in an online blog, and this was for two reasons. The first was that I didn’t think I had anything to say that wasn’t already being said by a million other bloggers. Second was the strong sense I had, and still have to a great extent, that blogging itself is just an utter waste of time. How many people are actually going to read what some random nobody has to say, let alone give a shit, let alone spend any time thinking about it before moving on to the next thing, let alone share and discuss it with others so as to disseminate it throughout the collective human consciousness? I only changed my mind after reading blog posts that did make me stop and think, that did have a permanent effect on my worldview, and that I was inclined to share with others. I figured that if I was using the internet in what I feel is the “right” way, there must be others out there.

A million different bloggers have a million different reasons for blogging. My biggest reason is the need to feel that I’m not just a passive observer of world events. I’ve always been interested in what have appeared to be the most important aspects of life, whether it’s the deeper metaphysical nature of reality or the political processes which determine the future course of human history. To simply absorb this information is not enough. I feel compelled to analyze it, interpret it, put it into my own words and share my insights with anyone who will listen. Because to me it seems that we’re living at a critical point in human history from which we can either advance to a new, more enlightened way of life or descend into chaos as civilization crumbles and falls under the weight of ignorance and greed, I feel a sense of responsibility to do whatever I can to push us in the direction of the former. Expressing my thoughts in a blog is obviously the least I can do, and I often feel guilty for not doing more.

But there are other, much less noble reasons for blogging. As it’s always been my dream to be a published author, this serves almost as a kind of short-cut. I may not be widely read, but hundreds of people are at least glancing at my posts and considering them, if only for a handful of seconds. It provides me with a weak but tangible sense of significance. And I can’t deny that receiving complimentary comments is always a welcome boost to my ego. Finally, receiving negative comments from people who disagree with me gives me a chance to engage in debate, which I’ve always found to be quite fun. So when I get down to the heart of it, am I really blogging in an attempt to change the world, or am I just doing it because it’s fun?

Of all the bloggers out there, how many are doing it purely for amusement? How many are genuinely interested in influencing their fellow human beings? If there are more in the latter category than in the former, there may yet be hope. But if the scales are tipped heavily in the direction of amusement, as I suspect they are, then the internet is subject to the same indictments that Neil Postman leveled against television.

The tragedy is that the internet does have the potential to alter the course of history in a dramatically positive way. Because the majority of online discourse is still done through the written word, it has the potential to shift our thought processes back towards what they were like in the 19th century, when enormous crowds would gather to watch Lincoln debate Douglas for three hours on a single issue (and these debates were considered relatively short!) The literary mind was accustomed to thinking in terms of propositions, arguments, and rebuttals. The internet provides us with the opportunity to interact on an intellectual level with people from all over the world and from across the widest spectrum of ideas and philosophies ever before available. We can be exposed to thoughts that a hundred years ago we could have lived our entire lives without ever considering, and we can actually discuss these thoughts with their authors. With nothing more than an open mind and a respectful attitude, humans could come to understand one another in a way never before thought possible.

Leaving aside the vast swaths of internet users whose minds are anything but open and whose attitudes are anything but respectful, there are still flaws within the medium itself that pose an obstacle to the elevation of discourse, and I’ll close by looking at two of them.

The first is the dominance of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, which discourage intelligent discourse by their very structure. I like Facebook because it allows me to maintain at least a thread of a connection to people I would have long since lost contact with and never heard from again prior to this decade (and because it helps me promote my blog) but its primary function is certainly not the dissemination and discussion of ideas. People can post links to news stories and leave comments, but rarely do the comments contain much substance. The structure of the site encourages you to condense your thoughts into as few words as possible, so that anyone looking at it won’t have to click “read more” to see the whole thing.

But that’s not nearly as bad as Twitter, which doesn’t just discourage lengthy posts but completely forbids them. If you can’t express your thought in less than 140 characters, you can’t express it. Imagine if Shakespeare had to deal with such constraints:

2b or not 2b: thats the ? whthr tis noblr 2 suffr slings+arrws of outrgous frtune or take arms vs sea of trbles & by opposng end thm, die: sleep: prchance 2 dream. theres rub

To this day I refuse to go on Twitter because I loathe the idea of a 140-character limit. I understand the rationale behind it, but even the underlying purpose bothers me. Twitter is, by its very nature, designed exclusively for amusement. Twitter users can’t and don’t expect to come across any profound, perspective-altering tweets (can you even imagine such a tweet?), but merely to see what their favorite celebrities are up to and to crack little jokes that will hopefully generate more followers. The very term “followers” implies that one uses Twitter to boost one’s own ego. Not “friends”. Not “connections”. Nothing that has any connotation of a serious exchange of ideas. Just “followers”—people who like to read whatever random thoughts that spew out of your head, as long is it doesn’t take more than three seconds to read them.

Clearly, I’m a long-winded kind of guy. If I can make my point in less than a thousand words, then I usually don’t think it’s worth making. I’m not simply interested in putting my thoughts out there, but my actual thought-processes. Asking people to not just hear your ideas but to follow your reasoning is the only way to influence them.

Finally, I’m frustrated with the very words we use for these online forms of communication. The words “twitter” and “tweet” are at least well-suited to that medium. They conjure up images of a swarm of little birds all tweeting at each other at the same time, producing what may be a pleasing sound but ultimately amounts to incoherent noise. If I had any money to start my own form of social media I’d launch a competitor to Twitter with no character limit (only a limit on what gets displayed—people can choose to read more based on the first few lines of a post) and a name that has some kind of an aura of seriousness about it.

But what I’d really like is another word for “blog”. It’s far too close to the word “blather” or the expression “blah blah blah” for my taste. I’ll listen to an “author” or a “journalist”, but why should I care what any “blogger” has to say? The very sound of the word “blogger” seems to imply that it’s someone not to be taken seriously.

I think one of the reasons many older people who could contribute a lot to the world of online discourse keep away is because these words make it sound so trivial. “These kids today with their blogging and their twittering,” I can hear them say, “Why should I give a hoot about all that blather?” A blog post can change your life, but so many people will never know because it doesn’t seem like anything of value can be found in a place called the “blogosphere”.

And so I’ll bring this blathering blog post to an end by once again urging everyone to read Amusing Ourselves to Death, or at least my summary of it, and spend some time considering the nature of our discourse and its affect on how we think. Most importantly, we should consider the potential that online communication has for humanity’s long-term future, and what we can do to make it elevate our discourse rather than dumb it down even further.

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