>No Wonder People Like Twitter

>That last post I just wrote about my job took me over an hour to write.  It was only like four paragraphs long, I used to crank out that type of ish in college in five minutes—so what gives?  I guess I was watching football on TV on two different channels the whole time, while checking NFL scores online and reloading the results of my fantasy team…while also periodically checking my e-mail for new messages and scanning other websites for updates.

My point is that it’s hard to devote your full attention to any single project (a blog post, an essay, a story) for an extended period of time.  Everyone knows this… students, office workers, professional writers.  High-speed consumer culture with up-to-the-minute technology, multiple screens, and increased audio-visual stimuli in all aspects of our lives just makes it hard(er) to pay attention.  The internet, of course, is one of the main culprits.  In fact, I think it has facilitated us, more than any other device, in our substitution of depth for breadth.

During my junior year at Vassar, I took a film class on the “Hollywood Blockbuster”.  It was a great, really fun class.  Not incendiary in its intellectual poignancy, but certainly very enjoyable.  One of the essays I wrote for the class compared Aliens (1979) with Dawn of the Dead (2004)–the remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie classic.  Without getting into it too much, I looked at these two horror films, made 35 years apart, to show that audiences have shortened their attention spans in ways that have forced film producers to cater to the demands of a consumer culture that no longer appreciates anything less than stimulation overload.  In an age of video games, MP3 players, and high-speed internet, I argued, audiences aren’t willing to wait an hour into the film for the first alien to explode out of someone’s chest.  Unlike Alien, Dawn of the Dead gets right to the carnage within the first five minutes, and doesn’t let up till the very end (even continuing into the credits).  And that’s kind of a shame, you know, sacrificing character development and all that good stuff in favor of action. (But I’m not saying I didn’t go to the theater for a sold-out, midnight showing of Dawn of the Dead with my Dad six years ago).

Both films made about $100 million worldwide (not factoring inflation)–so really what’s the difference?  I’m asking in a cynical, rhetorical way, but I’m going to answer anyway–the difference is artistic integrity.  Alien is widely considered a near-masterpiece.  On rottentomatoes.com, it has a 96% rating and is described as “A modern classic, blend[ing] science fiction, horror, and bleak poetry into a seamless whole”.  Dawn of the Dead clocks in at 76%, however, and is simply described as “gruesome” and “fun”.  Dawn of the Dead fared well enough at the box office, though, and its not likely we’ll see any shortage of mindless gorefests coming out of Hollywood anytime soon.

The way I see it, we’ve come to demand less from the products we ingest (films, TV, editorials, books) because we’ve come to demand less from ourselves.  We have surrendered to the burden of doing the hard work that’s required before we can discover new, important things about ourselves and the world around us.  When it comes to the way we interact with consumer culture, it’s like we’re all plugged into the same iPod, walking around with our headphones on, except someone went in and deleted everything off our library except the “easy listening” genre.  People want to consume information in short spurts, get the basic facts, feel informed enough; satisfied, and move on.  And in its significant facilitation of this process, the internet has put us in jeopardy.

It’s not just artistic integrity that’s at stake when we shorten our attention spans–it’s also our intellectual development that’s in danger.  The internet has become such a critical arena for people to gather and exchange important knowledge that informs their worldviews.  Online news sources have surpassed print journalism—people are turning to the web to identify their beliefs and affiliations.  I am not concerned with the idea of the internet as a source of important information, however, certain behaviors of information gathering that are encouraged by the internet may hurt our intellectual development in the long run.

For example: deciding who you’re going to vote for this Tuesday based on a politician’s 140-character Twitter post.  Obviously this is an extreme example, but Twitter has come to epitomize what I meant when I said we are sacrificing depth of knowledge in favor of breadth.  Online social networks like Twitter have not, like some people predicted (myself included), faded into the peripheries of our online consciousness.  Instead, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are as popular as ever—how long will it be until they make Twitter the movie?

A few days ago, Kath was telling me about what the upcoming topic of conversation was going to be for her weekly visit to Otisville prison.  Her and the other students in the program were supposed to talk to the men about some recent development that was going on in the world that they may be unaware of, you know, because they’re in prison.  She told me she was thinking about explaining Twitter and I offered a few thoughts on what I thought was interesting about the site.

Twitter, I thought, allows for three main modes of communication—one is communication between friends and acquaintances (much like Facebook), the other is between celebrities/public figures and their fans/supporters, and the other is between organizations, companies, corporations, etc. and their consumers or anyone who cares to see what that group has to say.  Users often post a short comment about something that’s going on, followed by a link to the article that they are referencing.  For most people, Twitter allows you to see what people are thinking about and looking at without actually looking at it or reading it yourself.  Entire articles are condensed into two sentence statements or reduced simply to a link.  Twitter epitomizes the process of information gathering that I’m worried about because you can simply scroll down your Twitter feed and read headlines (not even headlines— people’s paraphrased version of headlines)  and feel as though you have a solid sense of what’s going on with your favorite athlete, your favorite political figure, your best friend, your local newspaper, or your favorite blog all at once.  It’s information gathering without the actual gathering.  It’s surfing the web just by scrolling down.

I know that people do click the links, and they do read the full article or watch the entire video.  There’s no doubt Twitter does expand our opportunities to engage with different types of online media.  But I’m still concerned Twitter does more to make us culturally omnivorous than socially informed.  When I look at my Twitter feed, I can see what ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter has to say about this week’s Patriots game (without actually clicking the link for espn.com), or I can read what Tom Brady has to say about it himself.  I can also see where my friends just had dinner, or what the latest discounts are at Target.com.  I can see what Obama is talking about with the upcoming elections, I can see what links Arnold Schwarzenegger is putting up, what NY Times articles are being most re-tweeted.  All this information is available to me and, in many ways, has been personalized specifically for me—I can follow whomever I choose and filter the tweets I receive.  But ultimately, it’s up to me to follow through and not be satisfied with simply skimming over a string of ‘headlines’ as my information for the day—be it for entertainment or pleasure, or more importantly, news and politics.

Unfortunately, although I consider myself a socially engaged and curious person, websites like Twitter too often satisfy my need for information.  I don’t read the full news article as often as I should, or spend as much time studying political candidate’s web-pages or watching interviews of them on YouTube or reading editorials about them on nytimes.com as I should—instead, Wikipedia will do.  My attention span has been shortened and I feel so comfortable navigating the web that I think I can get the information I want without actually doing any of that hard work I was talking about earlier.

No wonder people like Twitter, it really is hard work to do all that internet navigation and article reading on your own.  My main point is not that we all need to work harder to become more informed or civically engaged.  I mean, that would definitely be a good thing, but what I’m concerned about right now and what I started this post with was the idea that our collective lack of an attention span is a dangerous and scary trend that may not rear palpable results until many years from now when its perhaps too late to correct them.  We have yet to study the effects of high-speed internet and the information overload that often accompanies online browsing.  The effects I’ve noticed thus far in my own life, and from studying consumer culture, are this:  we have come to appreciate thought-provoking material less than we appreciate exciting material.

The original Alien, as slow-paced as it may be, is full of political commentary and interesting symbolism.   But the last time I watched it with some friends a few years back, they were all asleep after half an hour.  Instead, movies that I enjoy solely for entertainment purposes (and that have done well at the box office), like Dawn of the Dead, have discouraged writers from producing more thought-provoking, innovative scripts, knowing they won’t sell as well or hold the attention of the mass-market.

{This indicates an alarming pattern–the internet has caused us to demand information at a higher speed and we want our entertainment to be more exciting; the creative thinkers in society who produce entertainment (movies, online social networks, etc.) have catered to these demands, i.e. more over-the-top, action-packed movie scripts or more ways to share and consume up-to-the-second information via something like Twitter;  we consume these exciting films and this fast-paced information sharing and demand even more excitement that requires even less intellectual work;  the industries cater to these demands;  our attention span is shortened as we embrace the immediate gratification of mindless pleasure; when we turn to the web to find information, we are satisfied with skimming;  we demand information at a higher speed and want it to be more exciting; the industries cater to our demands…thus, our collective appreciation for something like art has diminished as a result of high-speed technologies that attempt to lessen the work required to obtain information or achieve pleasure, but in reality just weaken our desire to appreciate that which takes effort.}

Similarly, I’m worried about my own willingness to commit to making discoverable moments in my own life.  If I can’t even write a four-paragraph blog post telling you how my new job is going, how could I ever imagine writing an entire novel?  I have undoubtedly submitted myself to become a cultural omnivore—I love knowing a little bit about everything that’s out there, rather than knowing a ton about a few particular topics.  It’s a choice I’ve made, and one that I think more and more people are making around the world.  Perhaps this trend will produce less experts, less geniuses.  But what it won’t do, is prevent us from creating a well-rounded society that is capable of weighing in a number of issues.  Ultimately, it’s possible that the breadth, not depth, of our knowledge will become a uniting factor.  Maybe it will help us overcome our unwillingness to compromise (I’m looking at you Republicans).  I don’t know if it will help with anything, but I’m happy with where I’m at.  I might not know all the specifics of our new health care plan, but I could tell you why I think using big-government spending to keep our nation healthy is a worthwhile endeavor (or at least more worthwhile than spending $800 billion on the war in Iraq)—hopefully that’s enough for us to have a spirited conversation and keep each others attention. 



2 thoughts on “>No Wonder People Like Twitter

  1. >This post just made me realize my next million dollar idea, the iOpinion. An app for your iphone or whatever where you check off various public figures you agree with, and on what topics you agree with them. I could click Simmons for basketball, Ebert for movies, Hayek for economics, etc. The app gives you their opinions on the pressing issues of the day, so you can have an easy to access opinion about any subject. People talking about a movie you haven't seen? Act like you're checking a text, and see what Ebert said about it. Perhaps you can click multiple people and have a blending of opinions, who knows. All I know is I'll never have to think about things again.And you're right about the attention span thing, I alternated between reading this post, watching Scanners, and reading a book about Teddy Roosevelt, one thing just isn't enough.

  2. >Nate, interesting post. In light of all the buzz on Social Network, I've been thinking and reading a lot about these issues of attention, technology, speed, and advocacy. Here are a few links you should check out. First, Malcolm Gladwell on social media and political "revolution":http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwellAnd two quotes from a response piece in the NY Times that I thought made powerful points:Evgeny Morozov: From a policy perspective, the question is: do we want to push traditional organizations to make better use of the digital tools or do we want to spend more resources on nurturing new kinds of virtual movements?…But we should not confuse mobilizing with organizing. The Internet excels at mobilizing people to rally behind political causes (obviously, not all of them democratic) – but someone still needs to engage in long-term strategic organization. Burt Herman: Rather than the mass media of before, where audiences were grouped together based on how far radio waves reached or the distance newspaper delivery trucks drove, curators find audiences with shared interests. They filter the most relevant information and add context through their commentary and insight, like the explanations on the gallery walls of an art exhibition. The most successful curators build a following based on knowing what their audiences want.Been thinking about social media trends, raising awareness and garnering REAL on-the-ground support, not just "100,000 people "like" your cause on Facebook" (and didn't do shit about it)… And another thought- what if Facebook had a "Dislike" option? Well it doesn't because that requires being more radical, opinionated and antagonistic. It's easy to "like"…but doesn't "dislike" feel like you gotta be able to back it up with either knowledge or some rationale? Heck, I should blog about this too :)-Sara

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