Why Chomsky is right about Twitter.

An Article in Salon today (you can access it here) suggested Noam Chomsky is wrong about Twitter.

I wasn’t au fait with Chomsky’s complaints, observations or otherwise about Twitter. Generally I am a Chomsky fan, but he can lean too much away from Continentalism for me to take him at that Guru status, which probably is the most healthy relationship a layman can have with a public intellectual. I know he is important in the conversation about the public voice, and I think he makes an important contribution in explaining the power of democracy to people.

Then I read in the Salon article that Chomsky thinks Twitter (for example) “tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication.” The article where these claims are made comes from Figure Ground Communication, a blog I wasn’t familiar with, but that I am very glad I found. The selected quote is a small aspect of what Chomsky was on about. In the Salon article (which I am glad for because I think this is a good topic and I’m grateful to Nathan Jurgenson for raising it) Twitter and other forms of social media are defended for their mobilising abilities.  In fact, if you read more of the Chomsky interview, you find he already makes the point Jurgenson uses to argue against Chomsky.  Take a look:

What is the importance of social media as a gateway for dissident voices, and what do you make of the contradiction that many of these outlets for “self-expression” are supported by one of the most powerful corporations on earth?

Well, it does not matter who supports them if they play no role in how they function. Of course, that is very unlikely to be the case; we have just seen it in the WikiLeaks case, where Amazon for example refused access to it. So if there is control by a sector of power, state or private, then you can be pretty confident that it is going to be misused. In fact, it should be under popular control; but in the existing society – which has very high concentrations of power – then access to social media can be a positive force. It has negative aspects too in my opinion, but in general it is fairly positive.

What are some of those negative aspects?

Well, let’s take, say, Twitter. It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication – which requires knowing the other person, knowing what the other person is thinking about, thinking yourself of what you want to talk about, etc. It is not a medium of a serious interchange.

I have my own problems with social media. Twitter I don’t use enough to have found the demons in the closet, but Facebook has made a real misery of my life at times. I have always said, and continue to say, without the presence of the human body, communication is limited. Facebook (because it allows for more intimacy in communication but people don’t excercise restraint) is the best example. Let’s face it, anything you can get addicted to like that is going to have a dark side. And Facebook is filled with addicts. A certain persona is projected, and responded to. People are able to get themselves out of negative situations so easily they don’t have to take responsibility for them (ie-learn from them).  Intense feelings are half-baked (hate, anger, love, attraction) and still responded to as if they were “real”. I’ve been on both sides of this fence.  I’ve made intense comments, that have more to do with another activity going on somewhere else, and projected anger on to people who had no idea what the hell I was on about. I have also been a victim of people using games they’d never get away with in the real world, to make grabs for power over others. These often end up causing conflict and damage in real world relationships.

Both Chomsky and Jurgenson cite the power of social media as a tool for the distribution of political information. No one can ignore the power of this in examples like recent conflicts in the middle east. I AM on twitter enough to know to go their for information first.  However, I would like to make note of the role of social media in the Occupy Wall street campaign. As an observer of the campaign (who believes very strongly in its heart) I’ve been rather appalled at the social media coverage. In the early days, there were some facts. We were treated to Michael Moore like statistics, interspersed with genuine hard luck stories. One I remember well was a woman lamenting no health insurance because she was born with a problem and no insurance company would cover her “pre-existing condition” and therefore she had racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills.

The shift is now to images of Individuals with cardboard slogans like “be the change you want to see in the world” standing with their arms around a policeman who is smiling into the camera.  I have no problem with the sentiment here, but I have a big problem with the superficiality.  I understand the primary purpose of Occupy Wall Street is for people to wake up and realise the system is broken. I realise its real effects may not be seen for many years yet, and that this is the first sign of the people waking up and I know the importance of that.  My interest is in what social media does, inthe long-term, to conversations it houses.

One of the strangest things I have ever seen was the postings the day Steve Job’s died. the lamentations of this multi-billionaire who ran a corporation that virtually lived in court crushing its competitors, sat very comfortably against the Occupy wall Street slogans about civil disobedience becoming necessary when the government is run by corporations. Its tough to ask social media devotees to think rationally about Steve Jobs. This is the man who gave us our I phones. But surely he and his Chinese sweat shops are one of the most powerful examples of what everything at Occupy wall Street is against?  That people comfortably posted shadow images of apples with Steve jobs face and occupy Wall Street banners in the same day on the same wall was just plain weird.

I’m not against social media (actually sometimes I am – it really depends on my mood) but I do want to agree with Chomsky when he claims it has the propensity for superficiality. My hope is, as humans become more sophisticated with their own technology, we will get past bumper sticker sloganeering – or at least relegate it to the smallest percentage of our communication, and learn how to use wonderful tools like Facebook and twitter for something more than pure ego-gratification.

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Here is a 1997 article by Noam Chomsky on what makes Mainstream Media mainstream.

There are many more Noam Chomsky articles to be found here.

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