culture & society

How Writing Can Save Us

by stuart lombard

Stuart Lombard

I am going to present the issue of over-sharing, touch on the mechanisms that companies use to keep you coming back, offer a fix, and answer how writing can save us all. (138/140)

I. The Form of Over-Sharing

A Tweet is a form of communicating ideas that forces us to choose our words carefully, or to resort to butchering our words into abbreviations. There are some things that Tweets are well-suited for, like: breaking news headlines, short status updates, or quotes from linked articles. But like all things nowadays, Twitter has turned into a highly politicised community of people with short tempers and even shorter thoughts. Users have learned that in order to participate, they need to shorten their thoughts to just 140 characters, and that has led them to lose most of the depth that should go into thoughts. People have very fast-paced arguments with little to no basis in logic, aptly named ‘flame wars’. These disputes can illicit instantaneous reactions and with how limited people are in their ability to express themselves in the 140-character limit, they resort to using the strongest possible terms and have the potential to cause a lot of damage. I have noticed that people are jumping to extreme positions very quickly, and this forces people out of a middle ground. The fact is that extreme positions are often more easily expressed in a small amount of space than the middle ground, which typically requires more words to properly express. I am a strong defender of the middle ground. I make a conscious effort to make sure that I am not drifting to extremes. In such a divided world, we need more people who are even just willing to hear what people of opposing positions have to say. That can sometimes be a difficult task, but I have noticed that those people are easier to find at St. John’s.

But I do not blame people for falling into social media traps; it is the companies that created the problem, and they know it: they did it on purpose. The more times you open the app, the more times you see advertisements, and the more daily users they have. These statistics eventually turn into revenue for the company. Is it surprising that Silicon Valley CEOs are increasingly restricting their children’s use of electronic devices? In 2010, Steve Jobs famously answered New York Times journalist Nick Bilton’s question: ‘So, your kids must love the iPad?’, by saying: ‘They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.’ Quite a lot of research has been done on over-sharing in the past few years. Researchers have likened the effects to playing a slot machine: either you are going to get lucky and there is going to be a ‘like’ when you open the app, or you will be unlucky and there will not be anything for you. The apps will constantly reinforce the cycle of rewards by doing interesting things with their algorithms like showing your posts more frequently to friends who have liked your material in the past. They know that those friends are more likely to ‘like’ your posts, and so they get you to keep coming back in order to see who is liking your posts and to show you posts from friends who you ‘like’ a lot. This also indicates the subtle etiquette of Facebook. Many people feel obligated to like posts just because they have seen them, very much akin to the almost obligatory ‘hello’ or casual wave when you pass a friend. If you see them and do not acknowledge their presence, they might wonder why.

It turns out that the same thing happens on Facebook. There have been many occasions where I have been asked by a friend whether I saw their latest post. They wonder because there is almost an assumption that people check Facebook multiple times a day, and if I did happen to check Facebook that day, then it would be peculiar if I did not see their post. And if I did see it, and admit I saw it, then they will probably be wondering why I did not ‘like’ their post. They assume that I have not seen their post because I have not liked it, and assume that if I would have seen it, then I would have acknowledged it by liking it. This vicious cycle has to end, and we can bring it about, but it will be difficult because we have become essentially addicted to the social reward cycle. If you are ready to take on the task, read on.

II. The Fix

In order to rid ourselves of the burden of social media, we have to disrupt the system that is keeping us full. I have seen many articles written on how to turn off Facebook notifications. It is fairly clear that people are getting increasingly annoyed at the amount of times Facebook pings their phones, but Facebook makes it difficult to find the settings in their app and then they hide the notification settings even deeper – this is their primary delivery method, and they do not want it turned off. But in order to lessen the burden, we need to give ourselves the means to forget about the apps. Notifications: Turn them off; turn them all off.

Step two: eliminate the sources. Right now, pull out your phone, and uninstall every single social media app you have; make no exceptions. You might also consider getting rid of all but one news app, and other content aggregating apps. Do this, and do not reinstall them for one week. I did this, and even after just one week, I found that a number of good things had happened: I was thinking more freely with less distractions; I had less reliance on my phone, checked it less, and even left it behind a couple of times; and my phone had significantly better battery life – Facebook drains a lot of battery, especially on Android… it’s those notifications and constant background refreshing. I have not reinstalled most of them, and I find that I do not miss them. If there is something I feel I really must share with every single friend, acquaintance, and family member, I wait to get back to my computer. Try it just for a week, and if you find that you really need your apps back, then at least you can appreciate the problem.

Question: Do social media apps and others that present endless feeds of content truly make me happy?

III. I swear this was not a major tangent…

If you care to hear my opinion, it is that the world is an incredibly bleak place. There are so many useless things posted online, and most of it has evolved into something without thought. Most things I see on social media either make me laugh, growl, or sigh. When I see rants, they are almost never backed up by anything except the heat of the moment – clicking ‘Post’ is too easy. When I see emotional posts, they often give absolutely no context, but illicit a ‘sad’ reaction anyways. What happened to keeping personal matters to ourselves? What happened to writing ‘Dear Diary…’?

But it is not these things that are most concerning. Rather, it is the posts that cause people to instantly divide, and take sides within the post. It is the ‘flame wars’ where people’s feelings get hurt because they stepped into the fight with no armour. It is the strong-man rhetoric that has pushed the world closer to nuclear destruction than ever before. This problem could be avoided if people stopped sharing every remark that passes to the front of their minds. There is definitely a place to vent all the frustrations that life sends our way, and that place is in a diary or journal, not the internet.

Writing is an exercise in thought; it is crafting a journey from beginning, to middle, to end, then revising that work to make the arguments stronger and more logically sound. Humans have written for over two thousand years in order to record histories and treatises in a way that can be preserved. But what we have on social media is just a collection of words, haphazardly put together, then posted for the entire world to see. To react is a powerful thing, but we have taken it too far, and reactions have become a commodity. Did you know that as a Facebook Page, you can pay Facebook to push your post further so that you get more reactions? The price to promote increases the more you do it, so that it becomes more of a burden: either pay up and keep your audience, or stop paying and reach less people.

My advice: slow down. Pick up your pen and a notebook, and write. If you are thinking too fast to write it down, open a Word document and go crazy. When you are finished, challenge yourself to find fallacies in your arguments and to address them. This process will, I think, help you find the middle ground, because the extreme opinions are oft littered with logical fallacies and elementary oversights. I expect that if we all took more time to formulate our opinions, and to craft strong well-reasoned arguments, that the world would be a much less volatile place.

It really is that simple: That is how writing can save us. Once we stop sharing our undeveloped thoughts, and focus on crafting good arguments, then no matter what faction you belong to, you will be taken more seriously and might even learn something about yourself or change someone else’s opinion. Let’s prove that the pen is still mightier, and use it to save ourselves while we still can.

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