Friday, May 24, 2013

Social media and the apotheosis of opinion

As I browse both social media and traditional media, I, like many others, get the definite impression that opinions are both more divergent and strongly held than ever.

If television produced the soundbite world, social media has made the soundbite seem like a Montaigne essay.

This struck me when I read about a recent New York Times Op Ed:

(Note that I didn't actually read the Op Ed; I avoid the NYTimes because of the paywall.  I want to save my free articles for when I really really need it.  How's that working for you, NYTimes?)
"There seems to be a widespread presumption that writing is prescriptive (or proscriptive) rather than simply observational or meditative.  Confident authority is an appropriate tone for straight reportage, but it’s become the default of columnists, essayists and bloggers, one that’s so reflexive that some of them seem to forget it’s a pose. To some extent this is a deformative effect of the space restrictions within which most of us work; in a thousand-word essay you can’t include every qualification or second thought that occurs to you or you’d expend your allotted space refuting your own argument instead of making it."
Substitute "140 characters" for "1,000 word essay," and you'll get a sense of the scale of the problem.

A second order issue is the feedback/reward mechanism associated with social media.  Each comment, reply or retweet is another hit of sweet, sweet dopamine.  Yet what I found is that I rarely got a lot of comments on carefully reasoned posts.  When I asked my readers why, they said that when I presented a clear, cogent, and reasonable argument, people didn't feel like they had anything to add.  On the other hand, a controversial opinion provides plenty of opportunities for support and rebuttal.

Sadly, I don't have any solutions to these problems.  All I can do is alert you to the issue and hope that being forewarned helps make you forearmed.

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