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