Social media may be creating a generation of dummies

I blog, therefore I am?

Steve Rubel is SVP, Director of Insights for Edelman Digital, and a social media and marketing thought leader.  I respect him tremendously.  But when interviewed recently by Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson on their podcast For Immediate Release, he said something that disturbed me profoundly.  He mentioned that he had given up his standard blog and was now only micro-blogging.  The reason, he said, was that people no longer have the time to read.

He’s wrong.  It’s not that people no longer have the time to read.  It’s that they no longer have the desire to read.  Because they don’t think it’s important.  That’s disturbing.

But what’s even more disturbing is the apparent readiness of thought leaders in social media to accept this fact and by words and deeds to further encourage it.  When instead they should be leading the discussion that this is something we should perhaps be concerned about.

Why be concerned?

Because ideas, analysis and opinion usually require more than 140 characters.  Because a successful society needs a citizenry that can think, and evaluate the validity of an argument.  I’m not saying that every member of the population needs to make The Journal of Foreign Affairs his or her favorite Sunday afternoon reading.  But I do think the greater the number of people who are at least capable of reading an article in The New York Times from start to finish, without becoming confused or disinterested, the better it will be for our country and the world in general.

Democratization of the creation and distribution of information is great, but what good is it if we’re creating a generation of information consumers that is intellectually incapable of separating the informational wheat from the chaff?

Unfortunately, by word and deed, there’s much that goes on in the web 2.0 world that I’m concerned may be breeding a generation of dummies.

Words and deeds that bother me

Our infatuation with all things visual vs. written word

Don’t get me wrong.  I love YouTube as much as the next man. But although pictures may speak louder than words, they don’t necessarily speak more intelligently.  My concern has less to do with video itself – after all, there is fantastic video content on TED Talks – but that so much video favors the superficial, the snackable. With people becoming seduced by the endless amount superficial, snackable video out there, they are developing an appetite for content, and only for content, that is the intellectual equivalent of cotton candy.  And soon their systems won’t be capable of digesting anything else.  The philosopher said Cogito ergo sumI think, therefore I am,  not I snack, therefore I am.

I also believe, though I have no scientific evidence to prove it, that there is a greater depth of involvement with information when we take the time and apply the concentration required to read something.  We also may stop, and ponder a paragraph, before reading further, which we’re less likely to do when watching video.

Our obsession with churning out content – twitter posts, blog posts, comments – for the sake of our Google juice

Does anyone talk about quality vs. quantity anymore?  We’re all suffering from information overload.  But the sad thing is that a good deal of the overload is sifting the garbage from the stuff worth engaging with.  How about posting a little less, and thinking a little more?

Giving in to the lowest common denominator

This is what Steve Rubel has done.  And when a thought leader like Steve does it, it’s doubly concerning.  It’s what the TV network news stations did two decades ago, turning organizations that had formerly helped to inform and intellectually empower a nation into a mirror in which the nation’s most unflattering features were merely reflected.

The dismissal of learning for learning’s sake

Lately I’ve heard buzz among social media “thought leaders” about the worthlessness of a college education.  “Nothing that I learned in college prepared me for what I do to day.”  The first thing I would say to that is, if most of what you’re doing today are the kinds of things I’ve written about above, then that reflects more poorly on you than your college education.

I would agree that there is much I learned in college that is no longer relevant to what I do today.  But the most important things I learned are more relevant than ever.  I learned how to think, I learned the importance of investigating opposing points of view, I learned critical analysis, and I learned to value intellectual integrity.

And as far as the “no longer relevant” things are concerned, that’s beside the point.  College was a time of exploration and discovery, of things I might learn and become, and  things I wouldn’t.  I am thankful that I had that opportunity, an opportunity many never have the privilege to enjoy.

What we can do?

Well for one, we can start talking, as I am in this post.  And encourage further conversation.  The more we talk and discuss, the more this discussion will spread.  And if it even gets one person to start thinking about the importance of getting a complete picture on an issue, reading different points of view about it, or in general just taking the time to read and be exposed to different ideas and perspectives, and thinking critically and thoroughly about stuff – well that’s a good thing.

I wish more of us would resist the temptation to post, post, post – flooding the blogosphere, Twittersphere etc. with endless streams of information, half of it bogus, self-promoting, superficial or simply spam.  Post when you have something useful to say, or found something that you have taken the the time to read and come to a conclusion as to whether it’s really worth spreading or not.  If not, use that time posting for something more worthwhile — like reading.

Break free from you own compulsion to read and follow everything and everyone.  My God, how can you possibly follow more than a few hundred people on Twitter and not feel overwhelmed.  Be selective, be critical, take the time to really read what people are sharing with you and make decisions about which of those people are really worth hearing from.

Keep blogging, and podcasting, not just micro-blogging.  Big ideas, themes and points of view require more than 140 characters.  If all we feed our audiences is the equivalent of intellectual cotton candy, then we are accessories to the crime of turning their minds into mush.

Finally, talk about this.  Share your thoughts with others.  The more people talk about this, the more we can help to create a web 2.0 culture that still values quality of thought and writing, intellectual discipline and integrity, and validation of sources, facts and information.  And to cultivate a web 2.0  community that doesn’t simply surf,  snack and spread, but thinks, analyzes and informs.



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8 responses to “Social media may be creating a generation of dummies

  1. Very interesting thinkings about the Social Media rush.

    I’m in the “popular” side of Spanish blogsphere and sometimes realize that conversation is going outside, far away of our control, giving up our essence in not more than 144 words.

    • Stephen Rothman

      Hi Fernando, not quite sure I understand. Are you suggesting that by moving beyond 144 character writers fail to focus on the essence of what they have to say?

  2. This post is so full of ideas I want to respond to, since I have a 20 yo son and the way his generation is addicted to their cell phones frightens me.

    I totally agree with what you’ve written, Steve, re microblogging vs. reading, blogging & podcasting. I even struggle myself with finding a time balance between online vs. off-line marketing for my mobile notary business.

    I think the obsession with quick info bytes has some roots from when Sesame Street began, and they created short, entertaining “lessons” to keep kids’ interest in the show. MTV also continued this trend.

    I noticed when our son was in h.s. that he always did homework and studied with multi-media input constantly surrounding him. Since he achieved good grades, it was hard to stop this pattern, but by that age, he was already a multi-media, multi-tasking pro, and it didn’t seem to hurt his concentration one bit. I honestly don’t know if he ever truly read one required book cover-to-cover during high school and still was an A student. 😦

    With laptops & cell phones (most of which are also PDA’s now) in abundance around us here, kids and adults are now constant email and info junkies, with no signs of it lessening. I’m tending to switch off more now, and read more books b/c I noticed how much less I’ve been reading — even the newspaper b/c the “news” presented each day is old compared to the internet’s constant barage of breaking news.

    OK, I’ll shut up now. You’re right, I couldn’t have fit this in 140 characters, but I am going to Tweet your link since it is worth sharing!!! Perpetual cycle? LOL Thanks for sharing this important point of view!

    • Stephen Rothman

      Thanks for reading Linda. I know there is much evidence suggesting that younger people are much more capable of digesting simultaneous sources of information compared to us “old folks.” If they can comprehend multiple inputs, but still manage to track a coherent argumentation or point of view, that’s great. I imagine that goes hand in hand with practicing in-and-out listening — concentrating on one source of information for a time before switching back to another. But it could be that they just get drips and drabs, tiny pieces of information that don’t add up to an integrated narrative expressing something more meaningful and profound. And while this may be sufficient to get good grades, it may still not be sufficient to develop a thinking, discerning individual. It also raises the question of how our kids are being taught and what they are learning. There certainly is a place in this busy, complex world for the ability to register multiple sound-bytes of information. But I can’t help wondering that if that’s all our thinking becomes, it ultimately won’t be good for us as individuals or for the communities and societies in which we live.

  3. Pingback: Social media may be creating a generation of dummies « Chicago Mac/PC Support

  4. Pingback: El Social Media podría estar creando una generación de tontos | Fernando

  5. Bruce McLaws

    Steve, while I’ve only recently taken the opportunity to enjoy your Soapbox feeds, your comments in this post are proof positive that you’re definitely on the right track.
    I strongly concur with your concern over an evolution towards an intellectually-incapable population. I spend my early waking hours insatiably pouring over feeds from fascinating and thought-provoking authors; I recently gave in to the social media phenomenon and joined Twitter – all I can say is – what was I thinking? I have little interest in most of the inane banter, and equal disinterest in bothering to send my own thoughts into the noise. The social media storm is a dark cloud casting an ominous shadow – as you explained. I’m going to use the great phrase ‘intellectual cotton candy’.
    If this cyclical trend evolves on course, I doubt that we will recover; by then we will have to repair more than one generation of insipid communication and irrational judgment. Sounds like science fiction will inevitably become fact.
    Please – whatever you do, don’t stoop to the level of Tweet 140 as your standard course of action.
    Well done, and Thanks.

  6. Sue

    Hear, hear! The problem is a lack of depth and substance. I do it myself – flit around like a butterfly or grasshopper from one superficial soundbite to the next.

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