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Social media, serendipity and the power of trivia

October 28, 2013

For most of us – and certainly anyone reading this blog – social media plays a significant role in our lives. We keep track of our friends’ lives through Facebook updates, message them on Twitter, see what they’re up to on Foursquare, and ‘like’ their photos on Instagram. I do this more than most, since social media is a big part of my job; my friend Richard commented that he doesn’t need to ring me anymore as he can find out exactly what I’m doing, thinking and feeling by looking at my various updates online.

A couple of weeks back my colleague Keith wrote an interesting blogpost, wondering if this stream of minutiae is bad for us, akin to obesity for the mind. He asked “is it possible that we have filled our brains with information, images, adverts, arguments, thoughts, news, features, blogs and opinions, to the extent that our brains aren’t functioning as they used to?”

The stream of updates about unimportant things, from lunchtime burritos to Daily Mail click-bait, are thought by many to be distracting us from the reading of improving books or forging of real-life relationships.

thinking man

Keith certainly isn’t the first person to ask if the sharing of trivia is affecting the way that we think. Plato argued the technology of writing would destroy humans’ ability to remember. 17th century lecturers complained that their students spent too much time in coffee shops catching up on news and gossip. Even the walls of Pompeii featured graffiti from Roman Jamie Olivers exclaiming ‘I baked bread today’.

As Tom Standage argues wonderfully, the sharing of tidbits of information in a peer-to-peer way is by no means a 21st century development, and nor either is the suggestion that this has a negative impact on wellbeing.

I’m an internet optimist. Sure, the internet gives us plenty to be worried about, from privacy worries to the impact on older industries and the economy. But in my lifetime the 20th century model –  in which mass-produced media were piped at us, to be passively consumed at a set time via a small number of TV or radio channels – has been completely transformed. The 21st century has seen a diversification in media in which has given us access to a wider array of information sources than we’ve ever had before.

While some may argue that this overwhelms people, I’d argue that on balance being informed via a wider range of sources is a good thing. The web gives us access to more information than we even knew existed, as well as the power to publish ourselves. Yet far from overwhelming us with a torrent of news, the amount of time younger people spend consuming news has gone down. It’s been suggested that we’re simply becoming more efficient, able to learn more in less time.

Yet it’s also wrong to say the web hasn’t had an impact on the way we think. When I’m talking to a friend or colleague and we’re not sure of a specific point, one or other of us will reach for our smartphone and settle the argument immediately. I don’t remember; I research.

On the one hand there’s a large body of evidence which suggests that the increasing complexity of the media we consume is leading to increased cognitive capacity and rising IQ scores. But there’s also a healthy academic debate taking place over how our behaviours are adapting to the changing information environment.

Just as printing put paid to the one-valued skill of memorising entire books, communications technology is changing what we choose to commit to memory.  For example, studies have shown that regular users of GPS devices begin to lose some of their innate sense of direction. It would seem we’re putting our faith in external storage, and reallocating our mental energy.

This is the same phenomenon Socrates described, in which writing will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

What’s different is the ease of access to these external marks, such that it’s available to anyone with a smartphone in seconds. The question is whether this reliance on external storage and recall (‘exomemory’) is such a bad thing. What Socrates failed to see was the incredible opportunity created by access to knowledge greater than that our own heads can hold. As Amanda Palmer noted, we can only connect the dots we can collect. The out-housing of our collective intellectual capital has exponentially grown those collections of dots.

Having a network of information sources creates greater opportunities for serendipity. Some of the most useful things I’ve learned in recent years are bits of digital lint in my browser’s belly button.

Euan Semple made an interesting comment on Facebook today about location updates. Seen by many as a social media irritant, the ambient knowledge of knowing when someone’s in town also facilitates the arranging on real-life meetings. Similarly. the answering of questions about where to find lunch creates bridging capital, which helps us to establish trust in others.

The internet’s not going away; it’s speeding up, and growing at frightening speed. With the web being the gateway to our collective hive-mind, the ability to access and analyse information from the sources it provides has become an essential skill.

It’s said that in the West our environment is obesogenic – that food is so readily available that it encourages overeating. But just as you don’t have to eat everything, you don’t need to read everything you see either. The problem is not that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that we haven’t fully developed the tools and behaviours to help us manage it effectively.

Yet it’s the very technologies that cause the problem – search engines and social networks – that are also the solution.  Through knowing and using a wide range of sources, effective searchers are quickly able to sort the wheat from the chaff in our exomemory.  By establishing a network of trusted sources, I can quickly find a person or organisation who can give me the answer I need. By sharing and reading just the right amount of trivia, we create trusted connections – and learn what to scroll past.

Socrates argued that, exposed to writing, people would become “hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing”.

The harsh light of history has shown this to be wrong. The human mind is a wonderful thing; by freeing up those synapic connections that might previously have been used to remember bus timetables or phone numbers, or discuss the 1989 first division football scores, we can put them to better use creating or connecting in ways that open up new possibilities for us all.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2013 8:28 pm

    Reblogged this on site2cite.

  2. October 28, 2013 11:40 pm

    I much prefer reading well thought out, penetrative, sustained dinner-table-like discussions found mostly on forums and blogs like this. Social media, with its pithy, ephemeral bar-room-style chit chat, serves as a taster to the meal. it’s like browsing for books on a library shelf: ‘all that information on those spines is making me dumber’. Not 8^)

  3. October 29, 2013 10:19 am

    Very well put. I think this is a wider phenomenon (long before GPS, I had a camera but no light meter. I rarely got exposure wrong – but I certainly would if I tried it now). The internalisation of technologies just keeps going, and some people keep feeling threatened by it.

    Your post immediately made me think of a lovely account by danah boyd of being in a lecture next to somebody who thought she wasn’t paying attention, which I wrote about at http://publicstrategist.com/2009/07/what-it-is-to-be-modern/ – the second quotation is priceless.

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