Friday, October 1, 2010

It takes all kinds, even on the internet

I've been enjoying the fascinating spectacle going on lately with everybody talking about social media, spurred by Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay on social media and activism. Here's my perspective on it.

Lowering the bar

(Warning: this is the "that's just what I said" part of this post -- can't remove it -- tried.) Gladwell is right to say that social media don't deserve the hype they have received in the area of social activism. I loved this sentence:
In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. 
It's very similar to what I said about social media and the Haiti crisis:
Come on, people! Let's stop patting ourselves on our backs for doing nothing! What a bunch of Marie Antoinettes we are. If social media worked for social good, why did Haiti get into this mess to begin with? Geologists have been lamenting to a deaf world about this earthquake for years, but nobody listened when something could still be done. What I've heard is that people are showing up with temporary relief equipment, and the Haitians are finding it better than what they had before the quake. Essentially, our inflatable hospitals are better than their real hospitals. If this event doesn't wake people up to the horrendous double standards we live under, nothing will.
Like Gladwell, I'm worried about low expectation setting on these don't-put-yourself-out contribution campaigns. If social media really could turn the uncaring multitudes into passionate activists, Haiti would be in much better shape today than it was before the earthquake. Giving a tiny fraction of what you can, and then believing you have just been generous and made a sacrifice because a button on a web site said you were and did, might be as much of an obstruction to overall donation as it is a spur.

People negotiate expectations of acceptable behavior all the time, and now lots of us are doing it online, and that does matter. When clicking "like" or "support" or making a trivial donation to people in desperate need is relabeled as generous, there is a danger of creating doublethink. In a related post on celebrity, I wrote about how today's celebrities fill societal sensemaking roles once handled by ancient emperors, gods and goddesses. Essentially, people use celebrities to negotiate societal norms:
Celebrities have inherited from heroes and gods the mantle of societal sensemaking through narrative play. People use these characters as elements in collective narrative play, to negotiate issues such as what is required, what is "hot or not," and what is taboo.
I fell into reading about celebrity worship because I couldn't make sense of the difference between what some famous celebrities actually gave to Haiti (tiny fractions of their massive net worths) and what was said about their donations: "extraordinarily generous," "giving it all." If we are busy relabeling the crumb-throwing of celebrities as passionate activism, that is because we are using them as pawns in a game in which we negotiate our own obligations. Mobilizing social movements is all about getting people to renegotiate their social obligations up, not down. So I think this trend represents a real danger to those who are trying to make change happen.

I particularly like this way of explaining it, from an article in Fast Company:
There's another dark side to social technology: the appearance of activism where in fact there is inaction. Using social media to make someone aware of a cause is half the battle; getting him or her to take real action is the ultimate goal. ... Membership in an online group does not equal true commitment; it might even make people less likely to take action, because they feel that their online group membership lets them off the hook. In one study, researchers showed that when people talk about their intentions, they can be less likely to act on them because the talking gives them a "premature sense of completeness."
Sadly, the thing Gladwell gets wrong (and lots of people have already pointed this out so I won't elaborate) is that weak and strong ties, and hierarchies and meshworks, are not polar opposites. They intermingle and interpenetrate, and they influence and sometimes become each other. I agree that social media support weak ties more than they support strong ties. But people interact in many ways. The whole thing is not as simple or strong as he makes it out -- and that in itself is telling, as I will explain.

One party, two parties

Reading the discourse on this article has helped me understand something I've been pondering about personality, the internet, and my own work on social media. In reading a few dozen blog posts on this topic over the past few days, I noticed a curious pattern. The more Gladwell's simplification and vilification of social media got under the skin of the person writing about the article, judging from what they wrote, the more likely the title of their blog post mentioned his name. Posts that said he took a reasonable point too far (but were calm about it) were less likely to feature his name in the title. My guess is that the people most provoked by Gladwell's statements were the most extraverted, and those people are the most attracted by social media (and the most upset when it is attacked), because it works best for them.

I also noticed some remarkable correspondences between what Gladwell has said about social media and what I've thought about it. Here's a bit of an interview with Katie Couric last winter:
Katie Couric: Do you use social media? Do you use Facebook and Twitter and ...

Malcolm Gladwell: No. Not really. My goal is to do less things online, not more.

KC: Why?

MG: Well, because I have a limited amount of time.

KC: Uh huh. Do you feel it clutters you?

MG: Yeah. I mean, my whole goal in the world is to clear big spaces of time to think and to explore and to follow my curiosity. And if I'm constantly on my Blackberry it kind of chews into what's important.
The important thing here is the word important. To me, and to Malcolm Gladwell, talking to people gets in the way of what is important. To some people, talking to people is what is important.

I'm a slow, deep thinker and, probably not coincidentally, a strong introvert. If I don't have big spaces of uninterrupted time to work in, I am rendered useless to the world. I always tell people I have one thought per week, and they think I'm joking, but I'm not. Anyone who has ever worked with me knows I shut down when life gets too broken up into little pieces. But many of the people I know do work in tiny little pieces, in hundreds of conversations and projects per week, and what's more, they like it that way. These people simply amaze me. When my mother was at the height of her piano teaching career she often had more than sixty lessons a week. I could not function in such a world. I know this because the few times I've tried, I failed miserably. Just a few weeks ago, I had a week in which I participated in more phone calls and answered more emails than I'm used to. I had to spend half the weekend immersed in the woods and in classic literature to regain a semblance of sanity. (Luckily I got sick, which was wonderfully focusing.)

I've tried Facebook and Twitter, and I seem to have had the same visceral ugh-gross reaction that Malcolm Gladwell had. As many people have mentioned, Gladwell has made something like twenty Twitter things -- um, tweets? I've made four. I look at twitter once in a while, but I'm always struck speechless by it. The last tweet I made ("about 1 month ago") was "Twitter is amazing. I have never before realized how little I have to say." And that about exhausts what I have to say (that can be said in Twitter).

I'm starting to think the debate on social media is being warped by a tacit agreement not to bring up differences in extraversion and introversion. As we pundits pontificate about the value of social media tools to society in general, we need to consider the possibility that our arguments are, at least in part, rationalizations of our unbidden visceral reactions. As a result we sometimes make farther-reaching statements than are merited by the evidence, possibly without realizing our own motivations. I myself tried to explain my frustrations about Facebook when I tried and then left it. When I've talked to people about the post since, reactions have been similarly visceral: either people totally agree or have no idea what I'm talking about. Perhaps the cause of the range of opinion on social media tools is related to the range of personalities among those speaking. Maybe just becoming more aware of that range, or making it more acceptable to mention it, would improve the discourse.

Long ago in my twenties, I used to go to parties. Many, many parties. (Okay, a dozen or so, but it seemed like a lot more.) Why did I go? Because going to the party was the only way to get to the party after the party. Meaning, the real party, where the people I already knew gathered around the embers of the before-party and got all quiet and philosophical and talked about important things until the sun rose. The after party was the real party for me because it was about few and strong ties. During the before-party, my usual scheme was to find the the biggest, loudest speakers on the dance floor and dance directly in front of them until the before-party was over and the real party started. That way I could ignore the waves of small talk crashing around me and wait for the storm to subside.

I do not have the gene for small talk. I have watched some absolute masters at it: they can sit down with any human being and have a conversation about nothing at all for as long as is required. (I do not say this in a pejorative way: I am truly impressed.) I have through decades of observation and study learned to mimic this skill to a limited extent when it is necessary, but I typically need hours of restorative silence to recover from just a few minutes of superficiality.

It was a great revelation to me when I realized that some people went to the same parties I did, but for the other party. For them, the before-party was the real party, and the after-party was just a bunch of boring stick-in-the-muds talking too long about boring things. Those people loved small talk. They thrived on it. It was why they were there. They danced, but only if they could shout banal observations about trivial matters over the music. I watched these people revel in telling complete strangers what they thought about all sorts of things, and what they ate for lunch, and where they grew up, and what breeds of dog were cutest, and the great book they read last week, and how everybody could lose weight, and ... pretty much all the stuff people talk about on Facebook and Twitter.

Explanations on top of motivations on top of personalities

So what I've noticed is: people have the same visceral reactions to the weak ties of social media as they have to the weak ties of party small talk. Some people lap it up, and some people endure it because it's the only way to get to the strong ties they are waiting for. And then we all write about how social media is wonderful or awful. But what's really happening is that we all try social media, and if we love it we feel we have to explain why, and if we hate it we feel we have to explain why. Because everybody is supposed to like it, but not love it. People who love it too much need to find a reason for that, so they say it will save the world and should win the Nobel peace prize. People who hate it feel like they need to find a reason for that, so they write scathing articles in the New Yorker.

I've done the same thing as Gladwell, which in retrospect makes complete sense. In a post about my own social media software (which I now realize was written for the after-party), I said:
In general I think web software has been wonderful for people finding and meeting people. It has been wonderful for people trying to draw more people to a cause. It has done a dismal job helping people who already know each other do anything but bring the most basic information together. In my opinion, Margaret Mead's small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens trying to change the world are still waiting for their internet.
I think the reason so many people are upset about what Gladwell said, that only strong ties create real change, is that he's attacking the before-party, and lots of the people who use (and work in) social media come to the party for the before-party. My guess as to why the most irate posters were also the most likely to mention Gladwell's name in their blog post titles is that those are the people most likely to participate in small talk, which always includes connective name-dropping (another thing most introverts shun).

So far I've only been writing about my hunches, but here is a fascinating study by the sociologist Stefan Wehrli. He surveyed people about their personalities and compared this information with their activities on a social network. Says Wherli:
Extraverts show a higher probability in joining StudiVZ [the German version of Facebook], they adopt the technology faster and accumulate more friends on their contact lists. Accordingly, individuals with high scores on extraversion take more central positions in the friendship network.
That's not surprising, but more interestingly:
Highly conscientious people tend to refrain from participation on social networking sites, suggesting that they successfully evade this popular source of distraction in student’s everyday life. Surprisingly, we found activating, positive effects from neuroticism which stands in sharp contradiction to theory and the majority of empirical findings reported in the literature. One possible explanation is that people exhibiting high levels of emotional instability tend to spend more time on social network sites. In being fearful of rejection, they might try harder to present themselves well in an unstained and attractive manner.
I would guess that both myself and Malcolm Gladwell are somewhat introverted, way too conscientious, and more than a little neurotic. This may be a combination that makes it simply impossible to participate in the major social media venues currently available. I myself found that when I did try Facebook, I couldn't stop checking it, and thoughts of what people might be saying about me on it impinged on my ability to concentrate. I don't get neurotic about this blog, because I don't write in it every day (I said I had one thought a week, didn't I?), and because, well, I've always written. It's a habit. I don't think I've stopped writing for more than a few days since I turned sixteen. I used to write letters and a journal; I'm just writing to a few more people now. If my blog readership skyrocketed, I might get a lot more neurotic about it, but at least for now I'm still at the after-party with my friends. Facebook is definitely not like an after-party, because there random people keep wandering around asking where the bowl of peanuts got to.

You might think that writing books would be a problem if you are introverted, conscientious and neurotic; but it's not half the problem you might think. For one thing, you can't obsess about a book, because once it's printed, it's out of your hands (literally). For another, you don't have to listen to what people say about your book, and many people don't. George Eliot famously didn't read a single review in her entire writing life; her husband apparently shielded her from the "like" buttons of the day. I wonder if much of the great literature we have today could have been written if its authors were forced to use Facebook daily.

But just as I am sure that most current social media tools are anathema to creative action by introverts, I am equally sure that at least some aspects of them are not just acceptable but required for the creative action of extraverts. So, as a bona fide member of the introverted world, I'd like to say to Malcolm Gladwell: I know exactly how you feel, and I want to believe you are right, but I know you are wrong. Social activism needs all of us. Yes, it needs the focus and depth of the quiet invisible seekers. But it also needs the energy and breadth of the people people, and yes, it even needs the small talk of the before-party.

I've seen extraverts heap up millions of apparently trivial conversations and arrive at something I could never achieve. They can't arrive at the same things I can arrive at, but they can arrive at different things that are useful in different ways. As somebody pointed out on one of the many blog responses I've seen to Gladwell's article, social change sometimes comes about by small changes made in the lives of millions or billions of people, and that change is no less important than the kind that requires intense sacrifice from a relative few. Also it is a mistake to underestimate the importance of people who build many weak connections. I know people who, for any random topic you can possibly throw at them, can pull out the names of three people you can call right now who will be able and willing to help you. These same people couldn't write a book to save their life, but that doesn't mean what they do is any less valuable.

Somebody stole our internet

So we are diverse, and we have diverse reactions. That can't be the problem, or if it is the problem we certainly can't do anything about it. The real problem, as I see it, is that the diversity of the internet doesn't match the diversity of the people using it. Why is this? I can think of a few reasons.

By most estimates I've seen extraverts outnumber introverts by about 75% to 25%. This may be most of the issue. As the internet has grown to meet the needs of society, it has become more like society, and the advantages we introverts held in the beginning have disappeared. One of the resaons we middle-aged internet nerds are cantankerous is because things aren't as comfortable for us as they used to be. Back when I started using the internet around 1984, it was a nerd's paradise. The beautiful people were kept safely out by our gate-keeping command-line syntax, which we carefully tended until it stood like a privet hedge around our world. I was a heavy user of a VAX-based communication system on my university network, then of the larger BITNET. I mostly used the internet to keep in daily contact with a few close friends. I did sometimes visit BBS systems, but those systems at the time were considered huge if they had a few hundred visitors.

I remember there was this one professor in graduate school who was shy. We shy people can sense each other and have a sort of unspoken fraternity. Once in a while I happened to ride in the elevator with him. It was lovely. We always gave each other this little glance that said, "No need to say hello," then returned to staring at our shoes. And then we would both relax, free for a few seconds from the crushing requirement of constant small talk. The internet-that-was was like that elevator. We internet nerds didn't push each other to do things we didn't like. We didn't display like buttons and comment walls and reputations and recommended lists for everyone to see. That would have been like forcing each other to wear signs that said Selections for softball teams: zero or Number of teachers who consider me a pet: six on our foreheads. We didn't display, we didn't name-drop, we didn't advertise, and we didn't do small talk. We had quiet, private, deep, important conversations. I remember the first time a friend convinced me to meet her on BioMOO, one of the first MUDs. People did bump into us occasionally as we spoke, but it was the sort of embarassed sorry-looking-for-somebody-else talk introverts know and love. There was almost no small talk going on. We were all there for the after-parties, and we all knew it.

If the web then was like a quiet elevator where nobody was pressured to speak, the web today is like a bustling market square, full of hawkers and hookers and jostling patrons. You can't get a sandwich without half a dozen bystanders asking where'd you get that and what do you think of the new mayor. When I visit places on the web today, I feel like a stranger in what I had thought was my own land. Every place I go now, I am expected -- no, required! -- to comment, leave my calling card, make a connection, say something nice, short, and superficial. Small talk is a requirement of the new internet, and we don't like it one bit.

But we adapt. We hide. We meet in email and on Skype. We live in the mailing lists, open source project groups, Yahoo groups, and other wastelands the extraverts have left behind. (Ning could be a good after-party spot, but it has so many of the trappings of the before-party -- announcements, events, profiles, polls, eye candy -- that we use it only reluctantly, and scare easily on it.) I can tell when I encounter another introvert on the web, because when I say the virtual equivalent of "let's get out of this noise and go somewhere we can talk" they nod their virtual heads and join me in the fusty email nerd lounge. The extraverts just shout over the music, "What, and leave the party?" In the new internet we introverts are like the rebels in Logan's Run -- living in the ruins left behind, ragged, scurrying, and happy.

Why has our internet become their internet? Besides there being a lot more of them, it has to do with eyeballs and the takeover of the internet by the commercial world. Selling access to introverted eyeballs is not a winning prospect. First, introverts prefer fewer stronger ties and speak in fewer longer conversations. That's fewer places to put advertisements. Second, we don't look around that much. We plod. You know that old joke -- how can you tell an extraverted engineer? When he talks to you, he looks at your shoes. The shoes of the internet are the texts, what people are saying, and our eyes rarely stray from them. I'll wager that most of the people who use advertisement blockers are introverts. I never see a single ad on the internet if I can help it, nor does my similarly quiet husband. But I've mentioned ad-blockers to several friends and relatives who are extraverted, and they always respond with puzzlement. They can't understand why I'd want to turn off the ads. They're fun. They're part of the party. Advertisements are like small talk: broad, shallow interaction.

We introverts ignore advertisements. When we buy products, we don't look at advertisements; we go deep. We read every single Amazon review. We ask questions on forums. We research every single purchase, even soap, as thoroughly as we can. But guess what? We still buy stuff. Amazon.com does a great job at cultivating both the introvert and extravert populations. The extraverts get their heaps of pictures, their "hot" items, their author blogs, their "what other people liked" lists, their "gold box" deals. We get our long, funny, silly reviews (and reviews of reviews). Have you seen what some people are writing on Amazon? Some of these people are hilarious, and the best ones are probably introverted. Sometimes I'll find a great review and then just read one review after another written by somebody with a funny way of describing things. I read Amazon reviews to my son, who usually insists on hearing every single one before we buy anything (there's heredity for you). I've even come to realize that the reason I found giving up television liberating rather than depressing might have been that I'm introverted. Giving up TV, for me, meant more quality time with novels and movies, my true media friends. But for many extraverts I know, TV is the small talk of a party that never stops. No wonder they love it so much.

I still think the internet doesn't work very well for small groups working together towards common goals, and I still want to help it get better at that. But this experience has given me new respect for what extraverted people can do with extraverted tools, and a new interest in supporting interactions among both introverts and extraverts. I'd say the most important thing I have learned in the past week is this. People who care about social activism on the internet need to be more aware of how our own personalities affect what we think everyone needs. And we need to build tools that work with, not just in spite of, our diverse ways of interacting. It's not good enough to say our tools work for some ways of interacting and connecting -- yours or mine. We need to make everyone part of the solution, if we don't want to build more problems.

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