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Social media seems to be heating up our pot

by Deborah Frieze on January 19, 2012

Last night, ten faces peered back at me from the glow of my computer screen—including my own. This was my first Google+ Hangout experience, and now nine strangers were gazing into my living room (and I into theirs) as we began a dialogue about educators experimenting with walking out and walking on. And who knows how many others peeked in, as lurkers were invited to watch the one-hour dialogue via live stream.

Ten years ago, I would not have invited nine people I had never met into my home at 9 PM on a Wednesday night. A year ago, I would not have “friended” someone I had never met in person. Day by day, my relationship to privacy, intimacy and social boundaries is slowly eroding. Much like the frog in boiling water, I am gradually adapting to the persistent incursions of social media into my daily life—and potentially destroying my brain in the process.

Or at least that’s one way to interpret the relationship between social tools and the mind, according to Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows I started reading a few weeks ago. Carr writes about the neuroplasticity of the brain, which describes how areas of our brain expand and contract the more and less we use them. As our culture’s tools shift from printed books to online media, we are becoming more skilled at scanning and skimming a dynamic ecosystem of information then we are at concentrating for long periods of time on just one thing.

I certainly feel that myself—I know how much harder it is these days for me to pay attention to just one book (I tend to read five to seven at a time), listen to just one speaker (the 20-minute TED Talk is about my max capacity) or to remember pretty much anything at all. What I’m not so sure about is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s certainly an emergent thing—that is, we cannot see the potential of this shift in the individual; it only reveals itself in the group. Meg Wheatley has been writing about this for years, explaining how a group is capable of behaviors that are not knowable when you study the individuals (you would never see the potential for building a tower in an individual termite). We live in a world of emergent properties, and right now, social media is generating a vortex of unpredictability. Some parts of our brain are growing and gaining new skills at the expense of other parts. Our relationship to privacy is shifting, as is our relationship to ownership, control, transparency, collective action, governance, ethics, the nation-state, and so on.

I’m not indifferent about these changes. Nor am I Pollyannaish about it all—I do not subscribe to the faith in evolutionary human consciousness that assumes whatever collective brain emerges will be better than the one that came before. Rather, I simply acknowledge that we, as a society, are deep into the journey of walking out of 20th century ways of relating to one another, and walking on to a new paradigm that is impossible to wrap our minds around. Because it is still emerging.

So are we passive in the face of these waves of change? Just along for the social media ride? Perhaps not. In fact, I take great solace in the boiling frog allegory, which turns out, isn’t entirely true. Ultimately, there’s a critical thermal maxima (maximum temperature an animal can bear) before which the frog will do everything in its power to escape, rather than soporifically drift off to death.

Social media certainly seems to be heating things up. What would it look like for us to boldly leap out of our pot?

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