On Digital Ephemera


Some time ago I said that I would write a little bit about why I don’t entirely buy the arguments in Tom Cunniff’s post The Monoculture of the Mind: How Social Media Makes Us Dumber, and then I promptly forgot to do so. Fixing this oversight now.

Mr. Cunniff’s post is well worth a read in its entirety (and you should really read it before proceeding here), but I believe he captures the core of his argument at the start of the post:

An unsurprising fact about human nature: the people we find the most agreeable are the people we agree with the most.

These are exactly the same people who become our friends in social media — on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. But so what? We’ve always had friends with similar ideas. And groupthink has existed since the first group on Earth.

Two Significant Differences

Here’s what’s new. And the more actively you participate in social media the more important they are.

  1. Our friends are omnipresent in a way they have never been before.
  2. The biases and beliefs of those friends are polluting our information streams.

Now while I believe that there’s an entirely reasonable concern being voiced here [I was particularly struck by the post because I had just written about my own worries on how my existing digital social group may affect my view and adoption of new social services], I also believe that there’s an interesting and redeeming aspect of (some) social media that Mr. Cunniff doesn’t address.

Disclaimer: when I say “social media” below, I’m thinking most specifically about Twitter and Tumblr, as those are the services that I consider most representative of digital ephemera.

And what is “digital ephemera?” For purposes of this post, I’m defining it as content that is created without the intent or expectation that it will be meaningful outside of a relatively brief moment in time — contrasted to, um, “archival” digital content, if you will.

While some people use Tumblr — and even Twitter — as a tool for creating archival content, I believe that by and large, they are viewed as ephemera machines: you and I will twitter about, or reblog, something that we wouldn’t write a blog post about. They’re tools that give us explicit license to share things that we don’t feel are all that important.

But that very characteristic, the off-the-cuff nature of what people present using these tools, is what I think can help balance out the echo chamber-y, monoculture-y tendency that worries Mr. Cunniff.

When I read someone’s professional output or their “real” blog, I’m getting a fully articulated, reasoned view of what’s important to that person. After reading a few pieces I usually have a reasonable idea of whether or not I agree with that person on approaches to software development, politics, music, or whatever the topic of interest may be. And, to be fair to Mr. Cunniff, if I disagree with the writer I’m much less likely to add them to my RSS reader.

With Twitter or Tumblr, though, I start following someone because I find something interesting in those little “unimportant” snippets that they share. I like the sorts of photographs that they post, or they amuse me with their observations about their family. They consistently mention great music that I’ve never heard of, or they can toss off insightful little thoughts on a topic that interests me.

I end up knowing a lot of little things about a person — starting to get a sense of what they’re like — through this digital ephemera, but I might go weeks or months without finding out what they think about the topics that they or I consider most important.

On a number of occasions I’ve learned via a disconcerting tweet or post that I strongly disagree with someone that I’ve followed for a fair amount of time on a social or political issue, and that’s where the interesting stuff happens.

This forces me to confront the fact that this person that I’ve found interesting, or insightful, or charming for days on end holds ideas with which I strongly disagree. To take an example from my actual experience, I have to decide what to do with the fact that this person that I find appealing in many ways strongly opposes same sex marriage.

Maybe I ended up unfollowing that person and maybe not, but social media created a situation in which I’d gotten to know them in a hundred little ways before I realized that we disagreed in a way that I find really significant. [And now some of you who found your way here via Twitter may have a similar decision placed in front of you.]

While the tools of social media do absolutely make it easier for us to find people all over the world who are just as right-thinking as we are — and I’m not sure that’s a good thing — the fact that they also make it easier for those insidious people who disagree with us to sneak under our guard, by having good taste in music or amusing family lives, makes those tools seem to me like a push at worst, and quite possibly a net positive.