more twitter hatin’ and conflatin’

On Monday, I came across The Twitter Trap via hastac and Cathy Davidson’s It’s Not the Technology, Stupid!. Davidson does an excellent job of critically responding to the many (and I mean many) problematic claims made in this brief editorial. I feel compelled to add a few my own thoughts to this conversation by engaging in some direct talking back (see this post by KCF for more on bell hooks and “talking back”) to a few of Keller’s statements. As an aside, I am looking forward to Davidson’s new book, coming out in August, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live and WorkAnd I am very appreciative of the great work she and the other amazing scholars at HASTAC do.

Bill Keller opens the essay this way:

Last week my wife and I told our 13-year-old daughter she could join Facebook. Within a few hours she had accumulated 171 friends, and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.

Wait a second? The title of this article is “The Twitter Trap,” yet he opens with a discussion of facebook. When did facebook = twitter? Like many authors who hate on social media, Keller conflates facebook with twitter.* They are not the same. Here’s one (very brief way) in which I distinguish between facebook and twitter (read the full post here):

How is twitter different from facebook?

  • Twitter is a public site. There is not an expectation of privacy.
  • People who read your tweets are your followers, not friends.
  • Twitter has a 140 character limit.
  • Twitter relies on crowdsourcing and how it is used is driven more by how people are using it and experimenting with it. Example: hashtags

In addition to these structural differences, twitter and facebook often appeal to and are used by different groups of people (influenced by gender, age, race, ethnicity, class, global positioning). While I am in favor of critical engagements with the limits of social media, those engagements demand that we provide specific critiques to the various media as opposed to over-generalized, hyperbolic statements that equate participating in social media to using crystal meth. While Keller’s flippant remark is probably intended to get a laugh, what it really does is shut down any serious (as in deep, thoughtful, meaningful) discussion about what various forms of social media do to us and what we can do with them.

*note: Keller does distinguish between twitter and facebook, at least briefly and somewhat superficially, later in his essay. However, his opening conflation still speaks to how social media is frequently represented as a monolithic threat; it becomes SOCIAL MEDIA as opposed to various forms of social media.

mini-rant: In addition to conflating twitter with facebook in this opening, Keller also invokes the tired old trope of the internet/social media as dangerous predator. Lock your doors! Shut down your computers! The interwebz are coming for your poor, defenseless children! Don’t even think about letting little Johnny go on facebook. Just like Jim Ignatowsky in Taxi when he take his first bite of the marijuana brownie and instantly becomes a drug addict, all Johnny needs is one click of the like button and he’s hooked forever. But seriously, I don’t want to dismiss the potential dangers of facebook (cyberbullies, privacy violations, posting private thoughts/images that shouldn’t be public, inordinate amounts of time spent in front of the computer instead of outside or with other people). Instead, I want to shift the conversation away from envisioning social media as a threat that children need to protected from.  We need to spend more time focusing on how to guide children in using social media effectively and critically/creatively. We (adults/parental figures) might also spend time learning from our kids about using social media.

Later on in the editorial, Keller writes:

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.”

Claiming that the only upside to using online technologies/social media is that it provides us with more time to do Farmville and watch/discuss “Real Housewives” ignores (or actively suppresses) the wide range of critical and creative ways that lots of people are using social media–like facebook or twitter–to share ideas, connect with others and create and document authentic expressions of selfhood. From:

  • live-tweeting conferences and workshops I was just following the hashtag for #racialequity and the plenary with Peggy McIntosh. See below for one of my favorite lines:

  • to mobilizing others to action check out mashable’s post on How Egyptians Used Twitter During the January Crisis
  • to documenting/sharing stories/spreading the word on the devastating tornado damage in Alabama and Missouri On both facebook and twitter, I was able to bear witness to first-hand accounts of the devastation and determine reliable ways to donate much-needed supplies to those communities.

Finally, Keller concludes:

There is a growing library of credible digital Cassandras who have explored what new media are doing to our brains (Nicholas CarrJaron LanierGary Small and Gigi Vorgan,William Powers, et al.). My own anxiety is less about the cerebrum than about the soul…

Throughout the essay, Keller spends some time describing the ways that social media (and here he particularly targets twitter) serves as a threat to our souls:

  • twitter is an enemy of contemplation, demanding that we pay attention to it and other tweeters at the expensive of our own thinking and reflection
  • erodes “our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity”
  • encourages us to unlearn “complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy”

I don’t totally disagree with Keller’s assessment of the potential effects of social media. Yes, various forms of social media (I tend to focus on twitter and facebook), can create distractions and encourage uncritical ramblings. But, that’s not all these social media can (or actually) do. Perhaps Keller will dismiss my claim, just as he dismisses the anonymous “tweeter” in his article who suggests that the value of social media “depends on who you follow/who your friends are.” But, I want to echo Davidson in her essay and suggest that “it’s not the technology, stupid!” but the people who use the technology that plays the most significant role in whether or not twitter erodes the soul.

Also like Davidson, I was initially reluctant to waste time responding to Keller’s “plaintive, yet hyperbolic critique of all social media.” However, since one focus of my current work is on how blogs and twitter can potentially enable us to cultivate authentic moments of (moral) selfhood and help us to create spaces for deep critical, creative and ethical reflection, I couldn’t not talk back to his claim that social media was a threat to our souls.  I plan to spend a lot of time this summer working through what it might mean to use blogs and twitter in tandem to cultivate and practice virtue and to (a la Foucault) care for the self. For now, check out my post on the undisciplined self via twitter.