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What Informs Us, Separates Us

On the September 18th NBC Today Show, Matt Lauer interviewed Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, about what was hyped as a big announcement on changes to the texting service.  In truth, the changes, all visual in nature, were a big yawn, but that wasn’t what impressed me about the segment.  Lauer asked Costolo, referring to Costolo’s statement two years earlier that his goal was to find a “purpose” for Twitter long term, whether he had found that purpose.  Costolo responded, “Twitter brings you closer.”  I guess that’s now its long term purpose.  Bring us closer together.

Unfortunately, Mr. Costolo couldn’t be further from the truth.  If Twitter has done anything, it has driven us apart.  So has Facebook, LinkedIn and just about every other social media application on the Internet and mobile media.

Sure reports claim Twitter empowered people in the Arab Spring.  And it has done more for free speech in just a few years than has 200 plus years of American jurisprudence.  Twitter has led the way in bringing us information in a millisecond where we used to wait for hours or even days.  Yes, this year Twitter will be a vital source for the ins and outs, the truths and lies of the U.S. Presidential election.  No wonder in four short years its value has rocketed to over $8 billion!  But one would be a fool if they thought Twitter or any social media platform is bringing the world together after witnessing what it has contributed to the current violence over the film on the Prophet Mumammad and the photos posted and divisiveness reported at any number of sites.  As I wrote in one of the first blogs on Party of We (and many others have said), the Internet, for all of the great things it has brought us, has a very dark side as well.

But Twitter — and social media in general — does not and never will, bring anyone, anywhere closer together.  Quite the opposite.  People like Mr. Costolo have to stop drinking Mark Zuckerberg’s Kool-Aid.

If readers would like a chilling explanation why, I strongly urge them to read Andrew Keen’s new book, #dititalvertigo – how today’s online social revolution is dividing, diminishing, and disorienting us.  In his book, Keen traces the evolution of social discourse from Aristotle to Mark Zuckerberg and tells a compelling story of how our increasing reliance on impersonal, largely anonymous, texting and posting has torn apart families, friends, and the basic fabric of society.

In a nutshell, we barely talk to one another anymore.  We no longer have discussions that include any meaningful or thought-provoking dialog.  Increasingly, all our communications – and what we do as a result of them – are via a process of short messages or posts on services like Twitter and Facebook.  We look down more than we look up.  Our thumbs move more than our lips.  We touch keyboards more than we touch one another.  And God forbid that we should ever pick up a ball point pen and actually write someone a letter by hand.

I’m not saying no one talks or communicates in person anymore.  Sure we do.  But less than we used to.  A lot less.

Do you now text your friends, colleagues, siblings, parents, and children more often that you call them on the phone?  It was three years ago that texting outpaced voice on cell phones.  Think about that for a moment.  Voices on telephones took a backseat to typing!

How often do you email your co-worker down the hall with a question rather than get up and take a walk to actually look at them in the eye?  How often do you call a restaurant for a reservation anymore?  In the last couple of years, have your buying habits shifted from strolling in a retail mall to clicking through an on line e-tailer?  I could go on and on with the list.  The point is simple – social media and technology is replacing personal interaction between you and me and everyone else.  Maybe some of its simple and trite, but I wonder if anyone thought that what started as a curious SMS service with a limit of 140 characters would today become more than 200 milliontweets every day.  No one could have anticipated that, and no one can anticipate the extent of damage social media will exact on social discourse as the digital future unfolds.

In a way, this grand evolution of technology reminds me of a line in the wonderful Alan Jackson song, I’ll Go On Loving You: “I don’t know what brought us together.  What strange forces of nature conspire to construct the present from the past.”  Except this time, those forces of nature are bits and bytes that are conspiring to construct our future from the present and destroy the past.

Last year, in an editorial in the New York Times, Sherry Turkle, professor at M.I.T., psychologist, and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” wrote:

“I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.  So I say, look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.”

Alas, Dr. Turkle, I think it think it’s too late.  But maybe someone out there will come up with the true killer app.  One that kills texting for a while.  Shuts down posting.  Puts Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and all their brethren on holiday once in a while.  One that lets phones only be phones and thumbs just part of a handshake.  An app that forces you to buy your next shirt or blouse from a living store clerk, not an avatar.  We need it before what we do less and less of today becomes nothing more than a memory in history like horse drawn carriages and gas lamps.  Now that would be worth downloading!

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for progress and the wonders technology and the Internet have given us.  I just wish we’d find a way – a discipline – that could preserve our personal interaction in a global community that has so much to offer beyond 140 characters.

We Expert Doug Wood

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About the author

We Expert Doug Wood had written 40 articles for Party of We

9 Responses to "What Informs Us, Separates Us"
  1. becker.randolph September 19, 2012 17:04 pm

    Thanks Doug, I enjoyed your article and agree whole heartedly.

    The ability to communicate to a family member or friend that you will be late for an appointment or to search for directions when lost in Manhattan or look up a fact on the internet to resolve a dispute is extremely helpful. But the internet, social media, speaking to others through the typed word only, will never convey the feelings felt at a moment in time or experience with another the smell of the outdoors as you share the view of the sunset over the Hudson River with the Catskill Mountains in the background.

    Social media, the internet, e-mailing are all great tools, but they can never replace the free flowing of ideas that occur when one is sharing one-on-one time together with another, in person.

  2. social_allie September 20, 2012 14:50 pm

    This story is unfortunately an uninformed and one-sided assessment of the capabilities of social networks. This author clearly doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of social media and hasn’t done enough research before forming and communicating his opinion.

    People can use any medium to create hate and foster mean energies.

    But social media has enabled communities to help rebuild and connect after disasters: AND

    Twitter, and other social networks, have created lasting friendships:

    And Twitter has the ability to keep the population more informed than any other medium: AND AND

    If that’s not bringing people together…than I don’t know what is.

    • mwbecker September 22, 2012 21:47 pm

      social_allie, I’m afraid you may be drinking the same Kool-Aid as Mr. Costolo. Mr. Wood is not saying that social media and the Internet have not done wonderful things for communications between people and empowering ideas. social_allie, you should read his other articles on the site. More importantly, the links provided to Keen Turkle also prove the point of empowerment and information, but more so support Wood’s view that social media, as a whole, does not of bring people together — as individuals who can really truly touch and be touched. Read Keen’s book. There is more authority in his treatise than all the links to love stories on Facebook combined. Anecdote does not prove reality. Scholarship like Keen’s does. Read it. Like becker.randolph said, “Social media, the internet, e-mailing are all great tools, but they can never replace the free flowing of ideas that occur when one is sharing one-on-one time together with another, in person.” And that’s the worst of what Twitter and other social media platforms do. I have no problem with their sales pitches. But tell the truth. Don’t ask me to drink your Kool-Aid. It is socially irresponsible for companies like Twitter to tell only one side of the story — the good and not the overwhelming bad. I’m not saying the benefits are not worth the pain, but let’s all be honest. Or as Professor Turkle put it, “So I say, look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.”

  3. BHB101 September 25, 2012 16:37 pm

    The consequences of our younger population spending so much time glued to electronic gadgets, while spurning a more traditional, face-to-face interactive education might, at first, seem like a good way to merge universal knowledge and blend the thoughts of the masses together… and, in a perfect world, that might build a more homogeneous, peaceful planet.

    Unfortunately, the truth is that it is much more likely to be a destructive and divisive force, building an invisible obstacle to personal and intellectual growth with others, and eschewing the historical benefit of cultural assimilation, which is probably needed in today’s America more than ever before.

    In the same way that some progressive school curriculum administrators want to develop Avant-guard programs, and introduce cutting edge, diverse stories and books for our children to read, the overwhelming cohesive good of studying the traditional classics (albeit in different ways, and from different teachers’ points of view) is one way that we have historically been able to bind a diverse population into a country where the same values and traditions are the very essence of how “foreigners” become one of the “us” and “we” become culturally bound together by the inclusion of new points of view.

    Being caught in a sterile bubble of electronic communications, without the sunlight of outside discussions, personal interactions, and traditional studies that serve to assimilate outsiders, the effect makes everyone an outsider, as opposed to becoming more tolerant and homogeneous as a nation.

    I suspect that the recent announcement that the latest national SAT scores are the lowest in 40 years says something about the lack of knowledge, writing ability, and intellectual capabilities that we are letting pass for education, and that, perhaps, we are not demanding enough face-time from our children.

  4. We Expert Doug Wood September 26, 2012 14:53 pm

    To social_allie — Thank you for commenting on my post. You’re observations are good ones, but I have never said the Internet does not do positive things. Quite to the contrary. But I continue to believe that while it may occasionally bring people together, e.g., some of the examples you cite, on the whole it has clearly done the exact opposite. I think the scholarly writings of people like Keen, Turkle and others a lot smarter than I am bear that out.

    As someone who counsels companies and individuals every day on how to legally use the Internet, it never ceases to amaze me how it has been such a yin and a yang for society. I’ve covered all the good things many times on this website. Please indulge me for a few more observations on what the Internet has done to harm the individual in every one of us:

    1. It has feed us with an insatiable need for speed. We can’t get enough bytes per second. Even when we don’t need them. We keep upgrading and spending money for faster rates that we barely notice. In turn, that appetite causes us to:

    2. Lose our patience. Everything has to happen now. We refuse to wait. People must respond immediately or we feel offended, left out. If we hear our mobile devices beep or our email notice pop up, we rush to reply lest we cause the person on the other end of the messaging to lose their patience. In turn, this causes us to:

    3. Lose our civility. We react too quickly. Too emotionally. We email, post, and tweet without thinking first. Who will see it? Who might it offend? Who can it hurt? No one can deny that today some of the most awful and offensive things one can imagine are routinely posted on the Internet by people who would never think of displaying such trash on the wall of their homes or take an ad out in the New York Times to say it or show it. The Internet has simply made too many people downright nasty. A lot nastier than we’ve ever been. That’s a sad reality.

    In the end, the Internet is perhaps the most wonderful advance in our lifetimes. Over time, this Information Revolution we’re experiencing will be seen as a transformative time for mankind. And we cannot turn back the clock to a more nostalgic time. But we should never forget the days when we used to stop by to say hello, write a thank you note on paper and mail it, or simply phone a friend just to talk. There is no question the Internet is making such past behavior rarer day by day. If we do forget that, the interaction we all miss will become the relic of history I fear and that, social_allie, would be a true tragedy.

  5. scottydubs September 28, 2012 21:45 pm

    What makes this discussion ironic to me is that we are debating the degree to which social media is bringing us together via a social media forum – blogging. While I see both sides to the argument, I can’t help but notice that we are having a non-face-to-face yet highly intellectual discussion. I have no clue who any of you are: becker.randolph, social_allie, mwbecker or BHB 101. When would we collectively get together and have this discussion over a delicious coffee or an alcoholic beverage? Highly unlikely! Sure this might not be bringing us closer together physically, but virtually, I am enjoying our interaction. The effort required to articulate my thoughts and choose my words wisely is intellectually stimulating. With my friends, I would surely rather discuss mindless topics face-to-face such as sports, TV shows and where we should eat dinner. But then again, I am sure I have pissed off a lot of people who might have been trying to have a conversation with me as I read and respond to this blog.

  6. We Expert Doug Wood September 29, 2012 14:07 pm

    scottydubs, it is the very irony you cite that proves my point.

    As someone who writes they see both sides of the argument, are you suggesting that virtual togetherness is a direction society should evolve? A direction we should embrace because the “effort required to articulate [our] thoughts and choose [our] words wisely is intellectually stimulating?” If so, at what sacrifice? At what balance? And if there is to be a balance – both sides of the argument as you might put it – how (and by whom) is that balance maintained?

    As you appear to acknowledge, those of us engaged in this debate don’t know one another and the likelihood of ever meeting as a group is virtually nil. At best, we’re virtual friends. Or virtual antagonists. Perhaps followers; perhaps not.

    Sadly, many think you can’t get enough of such cyber buddies. All so we can post and opine with impunity, never knowing what those who are typing look like, sound like, maybe even feel like since we’ll never meet them. Never really get to know them. And certainly not let them get to know us. That creation of distance erodes civil society. It does not bring it together. And the Internet’s trajectory is clearly to make that separation greater day by day. It’s unstoppable.

    In my occasional fits of nostalgia, I compare it to the old grade school pen pals of yore where teachers had students exchange names with other students from faraway places who then wrote to one another to learn about different worlds and lives. But these dialogs were one to one, pictures were exchanged, real names were known, family information was shared. And there was always the hope of one day meeting (and many did). That kind of exchange is a rarity today when measured against the avalanche of anonymous avatars tweeting, posting, and uploading.

    Perhaps what you see as irony, scottydubs, is the very core of the tragedy. This dialog is not bringing anyone together. It’s a fine debate and intellectually enjoyable. But when we’re done exchanging barbs, jabs, and a haymaker now and then, we don’t all sit down for a cup of coffee (or better yet a beer) and get to know one another. I suppose eHarmony does that in some fashion, but no one in this discussion is looking for a date (at least I’m not). We’re all presumably looking to make a point and then retreat to places the whereabouts of which no one else in the discussion knows. Unknown places where we can share our true personality with a mere handful of people, most of who will probably never even know of our alter cyberego (unless we’re among those who have a seemingly insatiable need to tell the world everything they’re doing on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn – behavior I will never understand). Most of us prefer to go wherever we feel safe and come back now and again to this site – or any site – and post anonymous comments (except for me in this discussion). That’s OK. But there is simply no argument to make that doing so brings any of us together.

    But so far, we’ve only heard from a handful of netizens. Bring in some others. Convince me I’m wrong. Or have I convinced you, scottydubs, of the error of your ways?

  7. BHB101 November 7, 2012 22:48 pm

    A Cathartic Observation.
    Nov.7, 2012

    Yesterday, because of the President’s campaign strategies, mostly in the form of his encouraging of entitlements, we have elected to extend the term of an intellectually inferior President, even though his performance over the past 4 years, under almost any reasonable metric, has been abysmal.

    Even more remarkable is that we also voted him in over a seemingly much more prepared, decidedly smarter, more business savvy, and frankly a more intellectually honest candidate… with a stellar resume, and few, if any, ethical skeletons in his closet.

    How could that happen? Are we really that stupid?
    Apparently, YES.

    I think FOX’s Lou Dobbs pointed to a very interesting fact last night:

    He mentioned that a state like Pennsylvania has over Forty Percent of its population dependent on some type of entitlements such as Disability, Food Stamps, Pell Grants, Housing Vouchers, Subsidized Housing, Welfare, Child Assistance and other payments from the government (….Not including Social Security or Medicare).

    If this is true nationally, it would explain an electorate that has blindly ignored all the Romney-Centric talking points about “individualism”, and “jobs and job creators” and “entrepreneurship” and “economic theory” and “American exceptionalism” etc. because of two overwhelming realities, even though his message was historically persuasive and based on proven economically policy:

    1. Our schools do not teach Economics at a young age ( making the majority of Americans woefully ignorant about how our economy works). and
    2. An incredibly large portion of the electorate is decidedly focused on the question: “am I going to get my [entitlement] check next month?”

    It naturally follows that if you dramatically increase the number of people on Disability and Food stamps, as Obama has done by the millions, they WILL vote for you.

    It also helps if you promote bigger government, thus increasing the government-workers voting block, and then offer “free” healthcare in the form of Obamacare to the uninsured millions. Raising taxes, of course, does not really enter into this portion of the electorate’s thinking. They don’t pay taxes (for the most part), and “upward mobility” doesn’t really serve as a motivator for those at the lower level of our socio-economic food chain. Their expectations, for the most part, have been thwarted by their immediate financial pressures.
    Ironically, Romney was probably more right with his 47% comment, than anyone could have ever imagined.

    Obviously, the President’s tactics of offering such entitlement “stuff” to a huge portion of the electorate, is a winning, albeit unsustainable, hand in American politics today.

    So now we have an electorate that clings to its entitlements….. Even more than they cling to their Freedoms.

    The American moral high ground of a strong work-ethic, as well as the aggregate attitudes about government itself, have now, after November 7th, officially changed.

    Government is no longer the adversarial behemoth that must be constantly watched, limited, vetted by the press, questioned by the voters, and constantly kept in check to prevent it from becoming too invasive or too powerful, which we all know governments tend to do when they go unchecked.

    Government is now part of our support group.

    Trouble is, history tells us that this phase of the decline of democracy never works.
    You can only tax until the taxed people revolt … or leave … or are held hostage.

    So now President Obama is the promoter of a decidedly short-term fix; More spending; more entitlements; more taxes; and more deficits, which will mean more borrowing.

    Since the National Debt is getting to the point that it is truly unsustainable ….. we have now most likely invited serious social unrest, or even rioting in the streets to some degree…. in the very near future.

    That is when we become a Greece, or Europe, or worse.

    Until some charismatic Hitler comes along and promises America a distinctly enthralling vision of salvation, which looks like a very safe, much less frantic and wholly less-competitive world, with lots of entitlements….. of course, we can’t forget the requisite dash of oppressive control, entrepreneurial intolerance, and loss of personal freedoms, just to keep it all neat and workable.

  8. Party of We» Party of We May 5, 2014 18:24 pm

    [...] September 2012, I posted a comment entitled, “What Informs Us, Separates Us.” A number of readers commented — both for and against — my proposition that [...]

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