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Is Twitter Eroding our Humanity?

Fire Hydrant with quote / Will Lion, flickr
Fire Hydrant with quote / Will Lion, flickr

First it was TV, then it was video games, now Twitter? Are these things really contributing to the decay of the human psyche, our morality and our ability to concentrate? Or is this just paranoid blame-seeking, intent on vilifying the entire spectrum of modern day tools part of our everyday life?

The ISN blog presents two viewpoints- mine and that of my co-worker Cristina Viehmann. Let the debate begin!


Lost in the times of real time web

It is not really just about Twitter. It’s about the total domination of information: RSS feeds, 24-hour television, blogs (yes, some irony here), tweets, messages, and mails in the daily life of a connected, phone and computer-owning person. Even without an iPhone or Blackberry (I am still resisting this ‘next step’) I have become acutely aware of how much time I spend in front of computers, how many times I check my mail every day and how incredibly dependent I am on a cell-phone. While being able to make phone calls on the go is hardly a novel thing anymore- it represented the first step in the revolution of information mobility and connectivity. With the advent of laptops and iPhones, information mobility reached an entirely new level.

Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds – We can handle with care

Modern day tools must be handled with care. It all comes down to what we use them for. Facebook can be a real waste of time. But one can decide to use it as an agenda, for instance – as a placeholder for people’s contacts and a program for upcoming events. Its use can thus end up being of the more reasonable type.
I agree, we live in a world dominated by information and in this I see the need for a system of information filtering. As for the filters out there, each of us is free to choose the one that fits us. I may choose the RSS feed over tweets, just because I don’t have an iPhone (wbich is the easiest way to access tweets), for example, and don’t like to access the Twitter website all the time in order to get informed on what the people I follow are thinking or doing.

Information does not have time to sink in

Although the consensus is that the democratization of information-sharing, and indeed information-production has been an immensely positive thing- opening up the field to previously silent or hidden actors- some people are starting to question how these developments affect us as people; as thinking, analytical and most of all empathetic human beings. Scientific studies, cited in a recent Daily Telegraph article, have started to focus on the effect that a constant stream of information has on our brains and our ability to process, sort and derive meaning from it. Some are even saying that the information-overload of modern living is making us numb and unresponsive as humans because it increases our tendency to dismiss important information, even information (such as news of mass accidents or famines) that would normally and under less stressful conditions elicit an empathetic, more morally attuned response. Information, these studies posit, simply does not have time to sink in and therefore never reaches the parts of our brain that process painful, uncomfortable or difficult issues.

Twitter: a mere traffic driver

One cannot pretend to be informed just because one has a Twitter account. Twitter does not make us wiser – it is a mere invitation to be informed, think, analyze and react. It is a bridge leading to sources of information and it is up to us to decide which of the many bridges to take. Even in the world of new media, information needs to be substantial and contextualized. Imagine receiving a tweet stating that “An estimated 20,000 children were conceived during the genocide in Rwanda”. Compare your reaction with what you feel after watching the “Intended Consequences”  documentary.

As Sarik Weber of Cellity AG explained at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum: there are limits to Twitter, as we have seen in the Winnenden shooting example in Germany, earlier this year. But the Mumbai attacks and the Hudson River plain accident have shown that Twitter plays an important role in spreading first hand information.

Where is the reference point in the ‘old world’?

We say ‘aha, this happened’, move on to the next news item or tweet and then forget about it. We live off bite-sized bits of information; we consume information in unprecedented quantities, yet are we any wiser or really more aware?
I have certainly become more impatient in my information consumption-habits as a result of all these new avenues for information-sharing. Undoubtedly it has also enriched my life and allowed me access to information that would not have even existed in a pre-blog, pre-tweet world. But how does it affect those that are growing up immersed in this world, without a reference point in the ‘old world’ that, while certainly less interesting and vibrant, was more focused and more attuned to the innate qualities and processing-capabilities of the human brain. While the human brain will undoubtedly evolve over time to account for this new super-highway of information in balance with other human needs, how will we deal with the current strains and pressures?

Here’s a way out: Choose the message by its medium

I’ll be quoting Kevin Anderson here, the blogs editor for Guardian.co.uk. When asked at the Global Media Forum what he thought was the best way to report news, he explained that it depends on the journalist’s intention. If the journalist wishes to incite emotion, he might want to post a video. If an interview’s impact is stronger when real voices are heard, the journalist might want to choose podcasts as a medium. As for in-depth analyses using, for example, graphs – a journalist will definitely wish to have the space of a full-scale article.
One and the same story can be delivered on multiple channels and it’s the audience that chooses its preferred channels. Believe it or not, for many out there, the best channel is Twitter, with its reduced 140 character limit. This simple one-to-many service, very similar in concept to the one-to-one short messaging, brought something really new to the world of reporting. And it’s not just journalists who are aware of the power of this medium. Even big companies realize that since Twitter is so widely used, they are facing a different kind of pressure from their employees who now wield reputational power. To conclude, take this other funny example from the business world: a Californian winery is on a nationwide search for a social media maven to generate buzz about its products.

2 replies on “Is Twitter Eroding our Humanity?”

Marshall McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium such as the Internet as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.

People tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time….

Society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of tech, we start to realise the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to aspects we are not aware of or cannot be objective about.

I really enjoy reading you blog! This is excellent stuff!

I just picked up this book and thought you might like it, since its of some relevance: The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. Its about how the new age of facebook, youtube, twitter, etc is killing our culture.

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