Twitter: Trap or Treasure?

A rusty metal trap door hangs open with a ladder leading down into darkness.

Two things just came to my attention about the nature of online life and interaction therein.

The first was published yesterday in the New York Times, entitled The Twitter Trap:

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on nytimes.com, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.

I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter. Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!

Balancing this is a presentation at last week’s fab social media conference at UBC, Northern Voice. The title of the talk was “Stop Apologizing for Your Online Life.” It was given by a digital media director named Alexandra Samuel, and based on an article she wrote earlier for her Harvard Business Review blog:

Still, the fact that life online can occasionally surprise and delight us points us towards the truth: it’s not the Internet itself that leads to pathologies like cyber-bullying, spam and identity theft. Rather it’s our decision — individually and collectively — to separate the Internet from the context, norms and experience that guide human behavior. It’s our decision to engage in online interaction as if it were fundamentally different from offline conversation. It’s our decision to label the Internet as something — anything! — other than real life.

There’s no denying the differences between life online and off. In our online lives we shake off the limitations of our physical selves, perhaps even our names and consciences, too. What remains are the fundamentals: human beings, human conversations, human communities. To say that “reality” includes only offline beings, offline conversations and offline communities is to say that face-to-face matters more than human-to-human.

Who do you believe? Are your online interactions and relationships real for you? Or do you view Twitter merely as distraction? What I do know is that part of the challenge (and potential) of social media lies is shifting your online life into something more than just epehemera. It takes time, practice, and meaning, to find reality in online life.

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4 thoughts on “Twitter: Trap or Treasure?

  1. Interesting points! Like you, I tend to favour the former argument over the latter. I think more people use social media is relatively anonymous soapboxes, perhaps as a reflection of their opinions, but not their behaviour.

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    1. Do’h! My sleep deprived brain made you think the opposite of what I
      meant! I actually prefer the latter view!

      I feel I’ve spent enough time on social media to figure out how to act
      and feel like a real person, and make real relationships. Indeed, you
      and I haven’t met “IRL”…

      What Alexandra’s point was is that this conversation and our
      relationship is “RLT” (real life, too). And the more time and effort I
      put into it and all my online activity, the more I am willing to
      believe her.

      A troll is a troll is a troll, right? But since, as the Times writer
      points out, more online interaction is inevitable, we need to figure
      out how to convince people to stop having anonymous flamewars, and
      start having real conversations. (That, by the way, will be the tag
      line of my new MTV reality show that takes place entirely in Second
      Life.)

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      1. I agree. I converse daily with people online that I’ve never meat yet feel as if I know as well as many of my “IRL” colleagues.

        IMO:

        The internet means nothing more than what you put into it. So if you do put yourself into it then you will not make those ‘IRL’ connections online. When you put more into the online connections is when you start gaining true value.

        To paraphrase Kevin Maney social media “seems to be like Pink Floyd lyrics: It can mean different things to different people…
        Depending on your state of mind.”

        So how you view the value of social media will determine the value of your return.

        ~Alisha764

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  2. I don’t think it is specifically a distraction. Actually anything (phone, coworker, lunch, etc.) can be just as much of a distraction. I view my TweetDeck popup box the same way I view my incoming email popup box. 
    I tend to lead the majority of my online life as I would in person.  Only differences are I tend not to use my family’s names as often online and I adjust some of my discussions to be applicaple to people who can’t see me.  For example an eye roll can’t be really done online.

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