Social Media and Cultural Literacy

twitter activismAs part of the WIS3 conference I learned to use Twitter. The reaction to the use of online media to discuss the abduction of Nigerian girls raised the issue whether online activism is more than virtual? The conclusion here was that it does. It raises awareness, gets personal narratives out, and begins further actions. If information and getting the word out is power than online activism is a vital part of material activism.

Collectives, coalitions, and groups are more effective. Gaining membership has always been the difficulty. Online exchanges help people sort themselves and further engages them by making the issues immediately tangible. It’s not some distant political issue but you’re friend right there online.

There is an anarchical aspect. Blocking helps with rabble and there are no trigger warnings. Threads are broken into digital flotsam. Messages are separated from their birthing discourse.

In “Faking Cultural Literacy” Karl Taro Greenfeld disses online engagement as superficial, know nothing.

What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.

Greenfeld basically blames social media for people reacting in a binary fashion and further that people do not bother to even read the linked articles beyond the headline if that.

According to a recent survey by the American Press Institute, nearly six in 10 Americans acknowledge that they do nothing more than read news headlines — and I know this only because I skimmed a Washington Post headline about the survey. After we’ve skimmed, we share. Commenters frequently start their posts with TL;DR — short for Too Long; Didn’t Read — and then proceed to offer an opinion on the subject at hand anyway. As Tony Haile, the chief executive of the web traffic analytics company Chartbeat, recently put it, “We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.” (He tweeted that.)

Hmm. In learning to use Twitter the real time aspect of involvement has an immediacy that is difficult to perceive until you have used it. If anything it seems more responsive and involved. While the time spent on any given message gets less and less as you try to speed through the many tweets the intensity of the exchange is not less but more. After awhile the long articles linked to tweets begin to feel like rumination, excessive digestion of information already found in many other tweets.

I found myself skimming the linked articles looking for information rather than enjoying language and structure though that wasn’t totally absent; I added articles in which I wished to linger later to lists and mailed links I could use as citations. The links do not clue the content as they are encoded so you have no more information unless you interrupt your message stream to go find it. After awhile this seems like an interruption during heated conversation. The concierge has come by to tell you something while in mid sentence.

The long posts seem like news arriving to the West coast from the East coast by means of the pony express. What arrives is already old news, almost irrelevant.

This immediacy feels like eruptions from a didactic ADHD. They are effective at getting attention. Participation is not like sitting beside a creek in a sylvan glen but rather waterfalls rushing to pools and further waterfalls over bumpy calamitous rocks.

There are the many personal interjections as well where it becomes clear that real people are involved. It becomes near impossible not to wish to remain engaged in the stream of messages flowing by, sometimes at an alarming rate. In this sense it seems like information and personal accounts are coming to you at video game speeds where if you don’t keep up you might miss something vital and not make the next level.

To say that this is superficial is to miss the exchange of breadth for depth, for lingering versus running engagement. Of course, I can stop at anytime but the lure is strong. I don’t think this is unreal. I did experience it as an alternative universe while trying to engage in regular social life of Memorial weekend parties. I was the first of the party to know the UCSB shooting because the tweets were yelling my way–and this was the following day. This doesn’t help conversation where the pace of discourse is sedate and self monitored.

I don’t know if I can stand the speed of exchanges but it’s clear that once engaged it is of enormous value. When not engaged it is a force to be reckoned with in understanding how we positively participate in politics and others through social media.

Jim Newman, bright and well

About Jim Newman

Jim Newman is a philosopher. When I was young I wondered what was the ultimate truth. How should I behave? What makes it all work? I was intensely curious to know what it all means. It was enlightening to realize there is no ultimate truth, but nevertheless sufficient and necessary turth, and that meaning was a meta analysis of living one’s life. In this sense my work has been living large. Living and experiencing life has made me learn many things. Building boats, motors, houses, electronics. Raising animals. Teaching. Writing. Photography. Drawing. Knitting. Sewing. Cooking. Music. Painting. Hiking. Aboriginal living skills. All material aspects of reality that seem irrelevant until you realize they allow you to experience more. My epiphany came when I read Christopher Hitchen’s “Letters to a Young Contrarian” and I felt vindicated in my many meals of sacred cow.
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