Yes or no.
If no, why do we keep making them?
For me, the bloom is off the rose.
The Internet affects us psychologically and socially in ways that people like Maggie Jackson and Nicholas Carr — to name just two — have been writing about fascinatingly. (I have written and spoken about the individual impact of the Internet a fair bit as well. See 1, 2, 3, 4.)
Perhaps it will make me even more of a Web 2.0 apostate to say so, but FaceBook, Twitter, Digg, many blogs, and many online forums are becoming increasingly obnoxious to me. I’m sorry to have to say it, but it’s true. Why? For a whole variety of reasons. But before I get into the reasons, let me say that these concerns don’t apply so much to Wikipedia, YouTube (except for YouTube forum discussions, which are obnoxious), or my own two new projects, the Citizendium and WatchKnow (still ramping up). Those actually produce (or usefully organize) quite a bit of interesting content. But as to many others — well, for me personally, things have reached a breaking point.
Frequently, we find ourselves in conversation with people we don’t know. We have nothing invested with them socially. When I first started talking to people in this way on mailing lists and USENET, back in 1993 I guess it was, online conversations were a bizarre but compelling game. It was still fascinating that I could speak to people who lived halfway across the world. It was the first time that I had conversed very much with people from Europe or Australia. It was also the first time that I could connect with people with very special interests (in my case, the fiddle tradition of County Donegal, Ireland). The social possibilities seemed rich.
Now they seem woefully impoverished. The stunning diversity of humanity online does not make up for the annoying effects of anonymity and disembodiment — or in one word, facelessness.
It so happens that I “know” fairly well on the order of dozens of people, people each of whom I have, at one time or another, spent many hours conversing and/or working. I’ve met some of these people in real life (IRL), but I would not recognize most of them if I were to pass them on the street. And, when you get down to it, I don’t really know much about these people. We only know about our shared interests — Citizendium, Wikipedia, fiddle music, or what have you.
To be honest, this makes me sad. I think that I should know my Internet acquaintances. I’ve spent so much time with them, I feel that I know them — and yet, I don’t. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I think there is a small sort of tragedy here. It seems pathetic that we so often meet a powerful and natural need for human companionship by sitting down and interfacing with a computer, usually through the medium of the written word. But really to get to know people, we need to be around them — hear their voices, watch their facial expressions, see how they react to things in your immediate vicinity, and in short “pass time” with them.
Please do not write to say that you have gotten to know all sorts of people intimately through deep conversations about many topics that you could not have discussed face-to-face. Yeah, I know. Me too. I have been doing that for a long time myself, so I know it’s possible. And yet a failure to “interface” in person has seemed to make all the difference to the long-lastingness of the relationships. The people who I have met in person after those long conversations I still count as friends; others, whom I never met in person, I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten some of their names. (That’s an apropos word here — “interface” — isn’t it? On the Internet, we are faceless; so we don’t really connect, we “interface.”)
The second reason Web 2.0 is becoming obnoxious to me is that I really, really hate groupthink. It may sound very strange that the main architect of Wikipedia is an individualist, but I am and always have been. Please don’t misunderstand; I am not, contrary to Andrew Lih and the London Review of Books, an Ayn Rand-following Objectivist, and that’s partly because I detest the way so many of Rand’s followers themselves engaged in groupthink without admitting or even knowing it.
But let’s not get off on that tangent. My present complaint is about the groupthink inherent in the design of so many Web 2.0 websites. It is one thing to aggregate opinions and data that reflects opinions, as Google and Slashdot do. (I think James Surowiecki’s excellent book The Wisdom of Crowds has been largely misappropriated in defense of many of these websites, by the way. Not all online crowds are wise.) It is quite another thing to be part of a community that has a variety of mechanisms that allow us to reward people who agree with us and punish those who disagree with us. Those are the tools of conformity and groupthink. As far as I can tell, the rating of comments in Amazon and YouTube are nearly as interesting as the comments themselves. As a result, we’re stuck with a lot of really overinflated ratings on YouTube (though, again, I really like a lot of the content on YouTube, for all the garbage available there) and a lot of pointless head-nodding in Amazon reviews.
(Amazon punishes user scores when your comments are low-rated, and it’s very hard to give a bad review without your comment being low-reviewed in turn. I’d guess this is because most people who care enough about a product to say anything about it generally have good opinions about it. This artificially inflates ratings — good for Amazon, bad for the end user who wants a more accurate view of the product. This is why I always pay careful attention to the well-written bad reviews.)
What’s really disconcerting is when people like NYU’s Clay Shirky seems to celebrate groupthink. If he doesn’t, I wish he would clarify sometime. In this Britannica Blog post, he said essentially that the instantaneous and always-on nature of Internet communication means that people are rapidly losing the patience and even the ability to take longer, more complex stuff (like Tolstoy) on board. But Shirky and some others don’t just assert that this switch to instant, bite-sized communication is happening, they (unlike Nick Carr) seem to celebrate it. I do not, because such communication represents a powerful engine of groupthink, which is both tedious and (if history is a guide) dangerous. If you want to be an individualist, you have to think deeply, a lot, by yourself. I would argue that you really have to come to grips with the great minds of the past (and present), as well. None of this can be done in any “bite-sized” way. But twitters and most blog posts from most people are at once both navel-gazing and intensely attuned to the tastes of one’s audience (real, imagined, or hoped-for). When we write briefly in a medium that makes reading and replying instantaneous, if we aren’t plugged in to whatever happens to be on other people’s minds these days, they won’t read and they won’t reply. We become irrelevant if we’re not mainstream; and you’re bound not to be, because true individualism rarely runs in the mainstream. Of course, the “success metrics” of blogs (Technorati scores, for example) and other social media only encourages this natural human tendency to conformity. I don’t know how any serious intellectual can observe this trend and not be a little nervous.
The result is that we become more and more Borg-like (and, plumped in our chairs, less Borg-like). Sorry, but I will not be assimilated. I just won’t play. I won’t Twitter. I won’t blog about the latest cool thing. I won’t update my Facebook page…often.
Let’s put it this way. I have complex, ever-changing, idiosyncratic tastes and views. The notion that I ought to be particularly concerned about “what’s percolating in blogs now” (for example) deeply offends my individualism. It’s sad and ridiculous that I should let my free time be eaten up by the concerns of an often faceless group of people — especially one that often behaves like a pack of hyenas — rather than my own personal concerns, or by interfacing with the great “cathedral-like minds” of the past. I’ll genuflect where I please, Shirky.
3. Such a godawful waste of time
The first time we see a shiny new Internet toy, we are all oohs and aahs. But, OK…isn’t it time to stop it with the “Which Star Trek character are you?” quizzes on Facebook? (Yes, yes, I have taken such quizzes. I’m not proud of it.) Why do we play these games? Aren’t they getting tiresome already?
Seriously, to my way of thinking, there are worthwhile Web 2.0 projects — like, of course, the Citizendium and WatchKnow (not launched yet) — but it seems like the vast majority of the websites, and many attractive and popular features within more worthwhile sites, are a waste of time.
Now, if you tell me, “You’re not getting it, this is social media, it’s for socialization,” I reply, “Yes, but what kind of socialization?” Are you seriously telling me that you make or foster meaningful friendships with all the silly tools and communities that exist out there? If you want to socialize, shouldn’t you be having a beer, playing pool, watching a game or movie together, taking a hike together — that sort of thing? No, I am not convinced. The fact that it is popular does not mean that this kind of socialization is a healthy way of socialization. It is a pale shadow of the real thing.
If competing for a place on Digg’s front page is of little value qua socialization — and on anybody’s account it has little value in terms of getting knowledge or wisdom — then sit down and tell me soberly: what the hell is it good for?
I know a reply to this will go something like this: you’re whistling in the wind. You’re a luddite. You’re trying to stop the tide. Complaining about Web 2.0 today is like complaining about television in 1960. To which I reply: I know that Web 2.0 is here to say; I helped build it and I know exactly the source of its staying power. I wrote in 2004 that sites like Wikipedia are natural institutions. But every human institution is imperfect, and some have far more flaws than others. Prostitution, for example.
Wasting our free time in faceless groupthink, staring at a screen instead of jostling shoulders or holding hands — is that where we in post-industrial societies are going? Is it where we want to be going? If you’re a kid, is that what you want society to be like when you grow up? If you’re a parent, is that what you want for your kids?
And if not, how can we use our boundless creativity to find a solution?
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