A key to dealing with times of great change–and this is a time of great change, where the long tradition of news and journalism appears to be changing, amateur websites are forcing governments to re-think how they maintain state secrets, and where thousands of 16 year olds are as well-equipped to sway public opinion as a well-funded PR agency–is the ability to critically think about what’s really going on beyond the obvious.
There are two basic types of statements we all make when working through such things. I’ve decided to start calling them thought stoppers and thought starters.
Thought stoppers are terse, simplistic statements that are often informed either by rumor or a mis-representative series of facts. While they are convenient in their ability to simplify very complex situations, they sometimes blind us to the complexity that we need in order to understand those situations. It is important to say before continuing that we are all guilty of lobbing the occasional thought stopper into an otherwise thought provoking conversation. I am as guilty as the next person of stopping up the spigot of thought. Here are a few examples of thought stoppers i have either made or overheard around discussions of digital media and organizations:
- Twitter is only for sharing what people had for lunch or for sharing links to other “real” content.
- Nothing of consequence can be communicated in one hundred and forty characters.
- Technology is making people more anti-social.
- People who did not grow up in the Internet age are less able to use the Internet.
- The Internet is killing journalism.
- People either use the Internet or they get together face-to-face.
- Face-to-face interactions are always better whenever possible.
It is important to note that thought stoppers are usually partly true. The problem with thought stoppers is that they are usually too simplistic to provide the nuance we need to really learn and understand. Here are some ideas for how the thought stoppers above can be re-framed as thought starters instead:
- Lots of people do share little seemingly silly things on Twitter like what they had for lunch. It might be narcissism in part, but could it also be the pent-up desire to connect conversationally after the years of industrial and suburban age separation that people like Alvin Toffler, Marshall McLuhan and others wrote about? Also, lots of people share profound and important things on Twitter, like news of the Iranian revolution, thoughts about mortality, or news about a baby being born.
- One hundred forty characters does seem too short to share substantive thoughts, but then again there are thousands of older short forms of content that did it successfully. The telegram comes to mind, as does Haiku, which is only 17 syllables after all. The phrase “..ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country..” is only 63 characters.
- Technology obviously makes some people less social, but others more so, and for the vast majority of us, it enables us to change our social patterns. Many people, for example, use texting, social networks, etc. to coordinate more frequent face-to-face interactions. Also, the older technology of the book made it possible for some “book worms” to hide away in their houses for days, while it encouraged others to join weekly book clubs, so this is not a completely new phenomenon.
- Pew Internet research has found that “social networking use among internet users ages 50 and older nearly doubled—from 22% in April 2009 to 42% in May 2010.” So if people of an older generation are not using the Internet, is it because they are unable, or because they are just now starting to understand it?
- Is the Internet killing journalism, or is journalism and the institutional models which support it merely changing with the advent of new tools and the culture in which those tools participate? Probably some of both. NYT comlumnist David Carr said in this very interesting discussion that he is doing the best reporting in his career due to the availability of information.
If we are to make sense of these changing times, we all need to pepper our conversations with more thought starters, i think.
Perhaps we can start here. What are some good thought starters you’ve heard?