what I love about Twitter (and Storify)

[View the story “The NYT in India” on Storify]

These things just surge and fade — they appear out of nowhere and then, after a flurry of exchanges, they subside. It’s an insult to the intrinsically ephemerality of the thing to preserve an exchange in this way — but just for purposes of illustration I’ll do it this once. I love it. I just love it.

attention deficits and thick descriptions

A few days late, but this is an interesting article:

It’s an assertion I’ve heard many times when a child has attention problems. Sometimes parents make the same point about television: My child can sit and watch for hours — he can’t have A.D.H.D.

In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are complex behavioral and neurological connections linking screens and attention, and many experts believe that these children do spend more time playing video games and watching television than their peers.

But is a child’s fascination with the screen a cause or an effect of attention problems — or both? It’s a complicated question that researchers are still struggling to tease out.

The kind of concentration that children bring to video games and television is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”

This is a reminder of a point that I’ve been trying to make for a long time: we can’t make useful generalizations about “screens.” You have to ask, “Which screens? What’s on the screens? Who’s using the screens? What would they be doing if they weren’t using these screens?” In the same way, we can’t draw sweeping generalizations about whether social media are good or bad, whether they enable revolutions or make revolutions impossible. Screens, social media, computers, digital technologies of all sorts — they just aren’t “good” or “bad.” We need thick descriptions of our online lives, and right now the available descriptions are pretty thin.

That’s not surprising; online life is new, so the serious study of online life is (necessarily) newer. But I am craving richer, more detailed, more stringently controlled, thicker studies of how we live now.

where “we” are

Peggy Nelson:

We’ve moved from the etiquette of the individual to the etiquette of the flow.

Question: Who are “we”?

This is not mob rule, nor is it the fearsome hive mind, the sound of six billion vuvuzelas buzzing. This is not individuals giving up their autonomy or their rational agency. This is individuals choosing to be in touch with each other constantly, exchanging stories and striving for greater connection. The network does not replace the individual, but augments it. We have become individuals-plus-networks, and our ideas immediately have somewhere to go. As a result we’re always having all of our conversations now, flexible geometries of nodes and strands, with links and laughing and gossip and facts flying back and forth. But the real message is movement. . . .Eventually I learned to stop worrying and love the flow. The pervasiveness of the new multiplicity, and my participation in it, altered my perspective. Altered my Self. The transition was gradual, but eventually I realized I was on the other side. I was traveling with friends, and one of them took a call. Suddenly, instead of feeling less connected to the people I was with, I felt more connected, both to them and to their friends on the other end of the line (whom I did not know). My perspective had shifted from seeing the call as an interruption to seeing it as an expansion. And I realized that the story I had been telling myself about who I was had widened to include additional narratives, some not “mine,” but which could be felt, at least potentially and in part, personally. A small piece of the global had become, for the moment, local. And once that has happened, it can happen again. The end of the world as we know it? No — it’s the end of the world as I know it, the end of the world as YOU know it — but the beginning of the world as WE know it. The networked self is a verb.

Question: In the Flow, is there any reason not to text one person while you’re having sex with another one?

How might this apply to storytelling? It does not necessarily mean that every story must be, or will become, hopelessly fragmented, or that a game mentality can or should replace analysis. It does mean that everyone is potentially a participant in the conversation, instead of just an audience member or consumer at the receiving end. I think the shift in perspective from point to connection enables a wider and more participatory storytelling environment, rather than dictating the shape of stories that flow in the spaces.

Ah, it’s consumption vs. creation again. Question: In the Flow, is there ever any value to listening? Or, to put it another way: In the Flow, are “listening” and “consuming” distinguishable activities?

reply to a (s)critic

In a comment to an earlier post that I should have replied to long ago, scritic wrote:

But most people don’t have the kind of tastes you do, they don’t want to read Tolstoy and then blog about it; but they do have other interests. So they participate in discussion forums about TV shows, they post pictures to Lolcats or Flickr, etc etc. I’m just saying that someone posting to Lolcats is still doing something more productive (for society) than someone who reads Proust and keeps it to himself.

That last sentence got a good reply from Michael Straight:

1) Someone who spends 99% of his time reading to himself and 1% writing about it might be contributing more to society than the person who makes a LOLcat everyday.2) Someone who only reads without ever blogging about it or otherwise producing anything directly related to their reading might, as a result of being formed by their reading, become the sort of person who contributes more to society than the LOLcat artist.3) I value the intrinsic worth of some reading more than I value making a personal “contribution to society” in the sense you are talking about.

I endorse all three of those points.I also want to add this: that I don’t think that Tolstoy vs. lolcats is just a matter of taste. To be sure, not everyone needs to read Tolstoy; most people don’t need to read Tolstoy. It would be nice if more people did, but it’s not socially or personally necessary.What is necessary, I think, is for all of us to be engaged in some activity that challenges us, that tests our intellectual limits. For some people that might be reading Tolstoy, while for others it might involve writing code or learning Klingon. But as Lanier says, “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself,” and being somebody is an achievement. It requires intentional labor, and a degree of personal ambition — and anyone can work and strive, though some have farther to go than others. But a lot of fooling around on the internet is just that, fooling around: it doesn’t test our resources or stretch our capacities. In many cases that’s fine, because we shouldn’t be working all the time: but even if fooling around on the internet really does somehow increase social creative capital — which I have no reason to believe — it doesn’t achieve a damned thing for the person doing it.

writing, silence, and privacy

From a brilliant essay by Jed Perl:

Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. This is obviously true of forms such as the diary, which are inherently solitary. But even those of us who write for publication can conclude, once we have clarified certain thoughts, that these thoughts are not especially valuable, or are not entirely convincing, or perhaps are simply not thoughts we want to share with others, at least not now. For many of us who love the act of writing — even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy — there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader. I believe that most writing worth reading is the product, at least to some degree, of this extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page. . . .I am not saying that writers need to be or ought to be isolated, either from other writers or from the reading public at large. But writers must to some degree believe that they are alone with their own words. And writers who are alone with their words will quite naturally, from time to time, conclude that some of those words should remain private. This needs to be emphasized right now, when so few people in the publishing industry understand why anything that has been written, and especially written by a well-known author, should not be published, and not published with the widest possible readership in mind.. . . What I fear is that many readers are coming to believe that a writer who holds something back from publication is somehow acting unnaturally. Nobody understands the extent to which, even for the widely acclaimed author with ready access to publication, the process of writing can sometimes necessitate a rejection or at least an avoidance of one’s own readers. That silence is a part of writing — that the work of this day or this week or even this year might for good reason be withheld — is becoming harder and harder to comprehend.

The dominance in our culture of social networking, especially but not only Facebook, intensifies this problematic situation. Shyness and introversion, as a search for either of those words on Amazon.com will show you, are regularly seen as pathologies; Eric Schmidt thinks that if you don’t want Google to know everything about you you must have something discreditable to hide; Mark Zuckerberg believes, or says he believes, that the exposure of your life on Facebook promotes honesty and integrity. Clearly there are people who would like to see a social stigma attached to a concern for privacy: will they succeed in making it happen?

altruistic oversharing

Steven Johnson writes:

In our house, we have had health issues . . . that we have chosen not to bring to the public sphere of the valley. We have kept them private not because we’re embarrassed by them, but because some things we already think about enough and would frankly rather think less about, and we don’t need to the extra prodding of 1,000 Facebook friends thinking alongside us. Every revelation sends ripples out into the world that collide and bounce back in unpredictable ways, and some human experiences are simply too intense to let loose in that environment. The support group isn’t worth the unexpected shrapnel. Most of us, I think, would put the intensities of sex and romantic love in that category: the intensity comes, in part, from the fact that the experience is shared only in the smallest of circles.But no doubt something is lost in not bringing that part of our lives to the valley. Somewhere in the world there exists another couple that would benefit from reading a transcript of your lover’s quarrel last night, or from watching it live on the webcam. Even a simple what-I-had-for-breakfast tweet might just steer a nearby Twitterer to a good meal. We habitually think of oversharers as egoists and self-aggrandizers. But what Jarvis rightly points out is that there is something profoundly selfish in not sharing.

Really? Wow, every day brings new evidence of my moral corruption. Someone out there is eating Pop-Tarts because of my failure, on so many mornings, to describe my wife Teri’s homemade muffins. A couple’s marriage is crumbling because I neglected to tell the world about the last fight Teri and I had — they would have “benefited” from that account . . . somehow. In fact, how could I have gone all these years without keeping a 24-hour-a-day webcam on myself?? Just think of the opportunities for enriching society I have missed! I have absolutely no idea what those opportunities could be, of course, but that just makes me feel worse. And greater still my guilt for assuming that people like Darnell Dockett are being exhibitionistic when they create live video streams of themselves taking showers. Why are you apologizing, Darnell? You should have said, “People, I wasn’t doing this for me, I was doing it for you!”

Seriously, I can understand and sympathize with the argument that what some call “oversharing” is defensible and even in some cases valuable. But to suggest that people who fail to expose their lives online are selfish is the height, or depth, of absurdity.

those pathetic youngsters

From Yahoo News:

Researchers at the University of Maryland who asked 200 students to give up all media for one full day found that after 24 hours many showed signs of withdrawal, craving and anxiety along with an inability to function well without their media and social links.Susan Moeller, the study’s project director and a journalism professor at the university, said many students wrote about how they hated losing their media connections, which some equated to going without friends and family.”I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening,” said one student. “Between having a Blackberry, a laptop, a television, and an iPod, people have become unable to shed their media skin.”Moeller said students complained most about their need to use text messages, instant messages, e-mail and Facebook.”Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,” wrote one of the students, who blogged about their reactions. “When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.”

Thank God that I — an educated, thoughtful, mature person — need never worry about such addictions. But seriously: there is a tradition of human reflection in which being in the midst of busyness is to be “secluded from your life,” and to be alone is to find that life. Just in case we’ve forgotten.


Speaking of being Against Social, let me comment on this post from the publisher of Seven Stories Press:

One reason that we’re beginning our push to blur the lines between print and electronic publishing with Hwang Sok-yong, however, has to do with Mr. Hwang’s reputation as a pioneer in popularizing online fiction in Korea. Mr. Hwang wrote his 2008 novel Hesperus as a serial on his personal blog at popular Korean portal site naver.com. The novel — a Catcher in the Rye-tinged coming of age story about a young man who slowly breaks free from the stultifying education system of Korea in the 1960s — was followed religiously by Internet-savvy young people throughout the country, many of whom left comments on the story as it was unfolding — to which Mr. Hwang responded each day before continuing the novel. It was a rare and appropriate opportunity for a writer and publisher to use the Internet as something more than a novel method of distribution or publicity. The book is about the experience of youth breaking free from conventional thinking, whatever the generation. The Internet allowed the generations to speak to one another, informing and broadening the content of the book.

Reading this, I’m reminded of the academic bureaucrats who want college students to be able to evaluate their professors on a daily basis, and who expect those professors to constantly restructure their classes in light of the constant feedback. (Yes, there are such people — I have met them.) I can imagine some few circumstances in which ongoing interaction between author and reader during the writing of the book could be a good thing . . . but I wonder how many of the works we most admire could have been produced within such a regime.

at least they’re writing . . .

Some time back I posted about the idea that even if young people are reading stuff their elders and betters think are trash, “at least they’re reading.” The question was simply whether reading anything is better than reading nothing. Well, we can ask the same question about writing:

As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into “bleak, bald, sad shorthand” (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?Andrea Lunsford isn’t so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students’ prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.”I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says. For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

(For links to Lunsford’s work, follow the link above.) Lunsford has discovered that textspeak is not making its way into student papers, and further argues that student writers today are highly “rhetorical” in the sense that they’re always aware of the audience they’re writing for. But does all this textuality make for better student papers? Do students who text frequently and spend hours a day conversing with friends on Facebook do a better job of producing sound, clear discursive prose than students who aren’t so textually active? I can’t tell from the article. Well, at least they’re writing.

the media of literary fandom

Here’s a wonderful article on the seemingly archaic and yet evergreen medium of the electronic discussion list and the kind of writers whose fans thrive in that environment. Here’s a sample paragraph:

Pynchon, Wallace, Ballard. These aren’t the only writers with active mailing-list followings: Foucault-L is fairly popular, as are lists on Joyce and a number of late Modernist poets. Still, they do suggest a certain correlation, sorted roughly along the shared lines of the postmodern, the “cult” and the pre-Baby Boom. When John Updike died in January a few Facebook groups were founded in his memory, but there was no Updike-L to organise a communal run-through of the Rabbit series or to collate his obituaries into a handy list. Similarly, Wallace’s cult reputation seems to have added an imaginary decade to his bibliography — contemporaries such as Franzen and Chabon barely get a look-in. And, yet, the work of these mailing lists is never quite as stable as it seems. The prevalence of outdated technology means that discussion lists such as Pynchon-L straddle an uneasy line between permanence and ephemerality: the archives are there, but are as difficult to navigate as they are to maintain, especially when the software garbles all hypertext messages into indecipherable strings of formatting code. Projects such as the Pynchon Wiki are a partial solution, bringing members slightly closer to fluid interactivity of Web 2.0, but in truth represent only a tiny fraction of the list’s accumulated expertise.

Now, it does seem that the author is trying really hard not to say that geeky male writers draw geeky male fans who use geeky technologies to communicate with one another — but it’s an interesting article nonetheless. (I wonder if some skilled sociologist could discriminate between the kind of person who uses these lists and the kind of person who prefers Usenet and allied technologies.)