Friday, March 29, 2013

Social Media Culture

The three most common speech balloons (top to ...
The three most common speech balloons
(top to bottom: speech, thought, scream).
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are we getting stupid?

I had a couple discussions over the past few days about our western culture, global culture and the ultimate fate of civilization in light of our social media habits. One of my friends lamented that we, as a species, have little to no hope of survival if the current trends hold true.

Granted, these fears are extreme and, I argue, slightly exaggerated. However, there are several indicators that are worrisome with regard to the human race and the way our culture is processing the issues set before them.

Nobody builds an argument

Gone are the days of methodically crafting an argument. It started in Florida with the FCAT and comprehensive testing. Grade students are taught that an essay is a five-paragraph paper with an introduction, three paragraphs of support and a conclusion. That is presented, not as a starting point, but as a finished product.

I feel there are merits to building slowly. The ABC's come to mind as a great place to start. However, your kindergarten teacher should never present the ABC's as a grand finally, those are just the beginning! The five-paragraph paper (though there are some solid reasons for teaching this model) is not a destination, though it justly serves as a vehicle to deliver the student to that place.

The real travesty here is that students are not building arguments, they are busy making statements instead. A statement is useless unless there is a solid argument backing it up. I have heard, to my dismay, many older high-school/younger undergraduate students present what they think is an argument which is, in fact, a string of unsupported statements with no logical backing. While this is troubling, even worse are those students who think they are presenting an informative paper which is actually lacking information or an argumentative paper that never actually takes a position.

Do you see the problem?

The Social Media Culture

Let me begin by asserting that I am a product of the social media culture. I have all the accounts and am active in most of them. I love social media and see immense value in it's potential. But when placed in the hands of the inexperienced and logically challenged, conversations easily turn into shouting matches and things like cyber-bullying are born.

But what do we blame for the dimming of internet wit? Here are the four main culprits:

Culprit # 1: Web Publishing

This goes back to Web 1.0. Do you realize that people (like me) who take classes (Master's Level) on web publishing are told to condense arguments, write short paragraphs (3 sentences max) and use bullet points as often as possible to facilitate scanning? Do you realize how hard it is to build a serious argument using only bullet points?

Does this advice make sense? Absolutely! Reading from a screen is completely different than reading ink on paper. It is also more difficult to curl up on the couch with a good computer screen than it is with a good book or term paper (what?). These principles, though completely reasonable given the medium, have decreased our culture's ability to read and comprehend a solidly structured argument.

Culprit # 2: Blogging

What? I admit it, I am a part of the problem. An extension of writing for the internet, the blogging phenomenon has allowed anyone to publish their thoughts for he world to see. My argument here has nothing to do with the education of the masses. There are some very uneducated people who are incredibly intelligent and make fantastic arguments and certainly should host a blog. By contrast, there are individuals who have earned multiple degrees and can barely put together a coherent sentence. No, I do not care who publishes a blog, the problem is with weblog culture.

Like web publishing, blog creation is formulaic; it can't be too long or dense because you will lose the audience. This is not the second coming of the newspaper article, it is a distant cousin who is in dire need of Ritalin. Why do I have four clearly marked culprits? So you, dear reader, can scan my post and decide which parts interest you enough to read. As a result, nothing I say here in this section is supposed to be dependent on a previous section in case you didn't read the other section.

So how are we bloggers supposed to create an argument if only a couple lucky paragraphs are going to be read?

Culprit # 3: Social Media

Chances are, everyone who is reading this post is likely plugged into some form of social media. CNN recently reported that Americans 1) grab their smartphone within 15 minutes of waking up and 2) check Facebook 14 times a day. That's a lot of social media consumption.

Social Media only compounds the problem. We begin condensing our arguments with static web pages, then blogs produce articles that are even more compact, now we have even more limitations on our social media statuses. With Facebook and Twitter we officially arrive at statements rather than arguments. We no longer have the time or room to add nuance or context to our assertion, we just say what we feel with no respect to others.

Again, there is nothing wrong with social media per se, but note that it has affected our ability to appreciate a well-crafted argument.

Know Your Meme
Know Your Meme
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Culprit # 4: Memes

If you thought status updates was the lowest rung of the argument ladder, think again. Meme culture has wrought even more devastation in the form of ridicule. Where there was little room for nuance, memes have removed it completely in favor of blunt statements or sarcasm.

Again, I love a good meme. I can even appreciate several memes of lesser quality. Cartoons have a long-standing tradition of using humor to point out truth. However, if the meme is used as a substitute for actual discussion, we have a problem.

Android Photo app speech bubble simple tastes ...
Android Photo app speech bubble
simple tastes Oscar Wilde
(Photo credit: Fueneco)

What's the point?

My point is simple: awareness. Know the limitations of social media and never let the 140 characters define your topic. It is a great practice to condense your main point to a concise statement, but you should always be prepared to expand you point and add both nuance and context to the discussion.

Is there anything intrinsically wrong with these four culprits? No. The we rules are set up as they are for good, practical reasons. Arguments must spring up from within mankind. Search yourself and make sure you've done your homework.

Then go away and read some books!

What do you think? Is our culture getting dumber? Why?

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