Grief Revisited

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not writing in this blog that much this summer. It’s mostly because I’m working on another blog project that is consuming most of my time (The Farm). But it’s also because I’m not as interested in troublemaking right now. Instead, I’m focused more on storytelling. Which is still connected to troublemaking; I like to tell stories that disrupt and cause trouble. But, it feels like my interests don’t fit in this blog space. Am I right? Not sure.

I anticipated not writing in this blog at all this summer. What would I write about? Then, this morning, as I looked over my twitter feed and read about how Scott Simon was live-tweeting from his dying mom’s hospital bed. Wow. He tweets some powerful expressions of love, grief, sadness and gratitude. I definitely want to add his tweets to my archive of caring uses of twitter. Here’s one of the (many) Storify collections of his tweets. And here’s one of the tweets that especially resonated with me. I remember singing to my mom before she died:

Simon’s live-tweeting is not my first encounter this month with kids’ stories about losing their moms. I’m almost finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. It’s a powerful account of how she became undone by her mother’s death from cancer and struggled to make sense of her life and her grief by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, from California to Oregon. I also just read a chapter in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know For Sure about the death of her mom (again, from cancer). And, I’ve just started Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith. In the few pages that I’ve read so far, she recounts the final weeks before her mom dies (of cancer, of course). Am I forgetting anything? Probably.

While it might not seem like it, I didn’t plan to read so many books about moms, death and cancer. I guess it just happened. Maybe it’s because so many people are losing their moms to cancer. Maybe it’s because, now that my mom has died, I’m more aware of (and drawn to) stories about grief and loss. And, maybe it’s because I finally, after almost four years, have enough distance from my mom’s painful dying and death to read about other’s experiences.

The Impact of Twitter

While scrolling through my Tumblr feed, I came across a brief video on the role of twitter in journalism (via Explore):

It’s from PBS’ Off Book, which is “a web-original series from PBS Arts that explores cutting edge arts and the artists that make it.” It’s pretty cool. I think I might watch their video on animated gifs next.

In the video, four journalists discuss twitter’s impact on journalism. Jeff Jarvis argues that journalism needs to “move beyond the article” and think of journalism as not just producing content but as creating an ecosystem. Journalists can (and have/do) use twitter to not only report facts, but to connect and collaborate with others in discovering new voices, verifying facts and participating in the ever-increasing flow of ideas and information made possible through social media like twitter.

Mark Luckie expands on Jarvis’ claims, arguing that twitter is a global resource, an ecosystem of news in which a wide range of folks can participate and engage in creating and verifying news stories. Among other things, journalists can use twitter to find multiple accounts of a story and to crowd-source their fact-checking. He suggests, “journalists should not see twitter as a threat, but as a helping hand on the road to creating better news.”

As the contrarian, Craig Kanalley worries about what is missing when we rely too much on social media. Social media (interestingly, he never explicitly discusses twitter or its unique features, but talks generally about social media) filters our news; we frequently read what our like-minded friends/those we follow share. This provides us with a skewed perspective. Hmm…reminds me of the Filter Bubble. Furthermore, social media provides too much noise; it needs to be mediated by experts (journalists) who can discern what is important and what isn’t. If, Kanalley continues, “the majority of people” are left to their own devices, they will only want to read/hear about celebrities and “things that are funny.” Relying on “most people” to provide and shape news is, Kanalley concludes, “almost scary.” Wow…sounds like some elitism here. Kanalley also briefly discusses the importance of remembering that not everyone is on social media; journalists must take into consideration those people too. His final conclusion: “The important thing for journalists is that we filter through the noise and surface the most important things.”

Finally, Chris Anderson cautions against mythologizing how good news reporting used to be in the past. Using twitter in journalism is not about destroying old (and better ways), but about recognizing that there are all sorts of ways to do journalism and to be a journalist.

In the last minute of the video, each journalist offers a slightly contrasting view on what it means that twitter allows for a wider range of voices to participate in the news process:

Luckie: In journalism, there are isolated pockets of people who have stories to tell. Twitter really enables them to rise to the top.

Kanalley: There are so many voices out there and we need somebody to say, “this is factual information” or “this is what you need to know.”

Anderson: I don’t know if news organizations can honestly make the argument that we are the best anymore.

Jarvis:  It’s not about having professional journalists and citizen journalists, or paid people and unpaid people. Acts of journalism can be performed by anyone.

I love Jarvis’ last line about acts of journalism being performed by anyone, especially how it shifts the practice of news reporting away from an expert identity, The Journalist, and towards a wide range of practices. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have a problem with “experts” who supposedly serve as the gate-keepers and sources/controllers of knowledge. Maybe that’s why I really bristled in watching Kanalley’s part in the video. Not only does he suggest that most people aren’t critical thinkers and can’t be trusted to determine what’s important/newsworthy, but he continues to champion The Journalist as the ultimate authority. Moreover, his over-generalized comments about “social media” suggest that he doesn’t even understand twitter and its distinctive features. I’m disappointed that he serves as the critical voice of twitter. Twitter, like everything else, has problems that need to be addressed and explored. Why not have someone who knows and uses twitter to talk critically about its limits, instead of someone who offers up their surface-level, gut rejection of “social media”?

A Tentative Conclusion

I appreciated this serious look at twitter’s possibilities for journalism, but I wonder if some of them still hold true, especially in light of the recent, and very disturbing, changes to the platform by its owners. For more on these changes, see Room 34’s great post: On products, services, and the trouble with twitter. Also, check out Dalton Caldwell’s helpful discussion of how twitter is pivoting (which Room 34 links to). Caldwell concludes: “the future of Twitter: a media company writing software that is optimized for mostly passive users interested in a media and entertainment filter.” Again, my question: how will this pivot affect how journalists use twitter, and for what ends? And, how does it limit/shape who can commit Jarvis’ “acts of journalism”?

Live-tweeting Halloween, 2012

@Room34 and I did our annual live-tweeting of Halloween last night; this morning I turned it into a storify. I also included some of my history with teaching the movie in the story. There are a few lines that I’d like to revisit:

The first year that I taught feminist theory in a Women’s Studies department in 2006, I screened it on Halloween day. The class discussed it, along with Carol Clover’s classic theory on “the final girl” from her book, Men, Women and Chainsaws. I remember thinking that I had the coolest job ever; I got to watch and critically discuss Halloween on Halloween! I wish I still had that same passion for teaching in women’s studies. Oh well, that’s another story.

It’s nice to remember that there was a time when I really enjoyed the teaching. I wonder if that will ever come back or if it’s gone forever?

Continue reading Live-tweeting Halloween, 2012

The trouble with pop accounts of scientific studies

A few nights ago, while reading through my Flipboard on the iPad, I came across this article: Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are brain candy, study says. I was immediately suspicious. So I decided to find the actual study to which they were referring. This, of course, made my brain hurt; as a humanities person, I am still struggling to make sense of scientific methodology and approaches. But, I read through it anyway.

In the study, Disclosing Information about the self is intrinsically rewarding, researchers out of Harvard (Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell) completed a series of 5 experiments involving self-disclosure. While I could try to summarize their introductory description and hypothesis, I think it might be safer to just let them explain:

Studies of human conversation have documented that 30–40% of everyday speech is used to relay information to others about one’s private experiences or personal relationships (1–4), and recent surveys of Internet use indicate that upwards of 80% of posts to social media sites (such as Twitter) consist simply of announcements about one’s own immediate experiences (5). Although other primates do not generally attempt to communicate to others what they know—for example, by pointing out interesting things or modeling behaviors for others to imitate— by 9 mo of age, human children begin trying to draw others’ attention to aspects of the environment that they find important (6), and adults in all societies make consistent attempts to impart their knowledge to others (7). Recently, a number of commentators have argued that such unusually high rates of disclosure derive from a species-specific motivation to share one’s beliefs and knowledge about the world (6, 7), suggesting that our species may have an intrinsic drive to disclose thoughts to others.

Here’s their hypothesis:

This account suggests the following hypothesis: To the extent that humans are motivated to propagate the products of their minds, opportunities to disclose one’s thoughts should be experienced as a powerful form of subjective reward. Here, across five studies, we used a combination of neuroimaging and cognitive methods to demonstrate empirical support for this possibility.

Well, maybe I should try to put this into my own words. After completing five different experiments, all of which involved analyzing the “neural regions in the brain associated with reward,” when subjects were disclosing information to self and to others, the scientists concluded that, just like wanting food or sex, people intrinsically want to share. And they share because it stimulates the reward center of the brain (as opposed to sharing for advantage or to be liked or for well-being). The scientists conclude their short paper by suggesting that this desire to share speaks to the “extreme sociality of our species” (5).

As I think more about this study, I am (at least a little) intrigued. It’s interesting to think through the neurological reasons why we might have a desire to share ideas, experiences, knowledge with others. I’m glad that I read the actual study instead of just the pop piece in the LA Times. While this study uses their conclusions to point to our desire to share and our fundamental sociality, the LA Times piece (mis)uses the study in order to explain why people might perpetually (and counfoundingly) overshare online. They write:

So perhaps all this explains the confounding behavior of people who over-share on the Internet, even to their detriment. (Think criminals who get arrested after bragging about their crimes on Facebook, the teenage girl whose online venting about her chores led to her dad shooting her laptop, the guy who almost went to jail for complaining about his wife.)

Really? What are they suggesting with this flippant statement? Don’t blame these idiots who share too much online; it’s their brains fault?! What a waste of an article and a study….

The more I think about, the more curious (or the curiouser?) I get about this study and its implications. In one of the experiments, they tested what difference it made in the reward center of the brain between subjects who revealed information about themselves privately, with the guarantee that no one else would ever see it, and subjects who revealed information about themselves publicly, sometimes with someone else in the room. Researchers determined that sharing publicly stimulated the reward center more. I wonder, does it make any difference whether or not they get a reaction (an affirmation? some feedback? a question?) from others? Is the reward center stimulated even more when there’s engagement? Is it the act of public self-disclosure alone that is intrinsic? Or could it be the social exchange, the process of sharing and engaging, that is intrinsic? I might be reaching too far with my questions. However, as I think through my own use of social media and the real and imagined audiences that I have when I share, I wonder what motivates my interest in expressing and engaging publicly?