May 30, 2010

"Facebook has no charms for me. It looks inward. Twitter looks outward..."

From an essay by Roger Ebert about how the internet rewires our brains. A lot of the essay is about the importance of stepping away from the computer and reading our way through actual books — long books that you read straight through in a linear fashion (which ends up being long novels, which just happen to be something he loves doing anyway). But I was struck by the Facebook/Twitter point. We spend a lot of time on the internet, but we do different things here, so it's not just a matter of what The Internet does to our brains.

In fact, Reading Books isn't just one distinctive activity. Ebert writes about books as if book = Victorian novel. But some of us like reading nonfiction, including books that don't require linear reading at all. You can dip back and forth in a book and read snippets in very much the same style as web-surfing. When I'm reading books, I like a stack of books of different kinds. I might read a few pages in one, then switch to another, maybe rotate through the whole pile, very similar to the way I'd open up a set of tabs in my browser and cycle through them. And I like reference books and essay collections — e.g., a collection of movie reviews — that are best read by jumping around.

By the same token, on the internet, there are different ways to read. As Ebert's Facebook/Twitter point shows, reading is deeply interwoven with writing and with the feeling of interacting with other people. Sitting by yourself with a long book is quite unnatural by comparison. I think it could be said that the internet takes our urge to read and reintegrates us with society. It's more like the natural world that we evolved to live in: there should be the constant potential for interruptions and distractions; we should be giving and receiving communication to and from other people who are alive now and able to respond to us. In that light, long books distort our brains, and the internet brings us back to human society.

And being on the internet isn't just one distinctive activity. Some people like Facebook and some like Twitter. Me, I love blogging. I've done the other 2, but blogging suits me best — in part because I have so many commenters who come here and make this feel like the lively coffeehouse or salon I always hoped I could find in real life. Ebert says Facebook looks inward, and he prefers Twitter, but isn't it funny that if Facebook is really inward, it's more like the long novels that Ebert uses as an antidote to the internet experience? Ebert twits like mad — his Twitter feed is excellent — but maybe he's using it, in part, as a change of pace from those Victorian novels.

We can, each of us, design our own mix of experiences — in nature, in face-to-face human encounters, with books, with pen and paper, and using computers to read and write. We balance and offset. We seek pleasure and satisfaction and power and wisdom. We begin where we begin. One individual begins with too few real-life friends and a love of thick novels, another begins with a chattering schoolgirl clique and a Facebook page. Add something to that and then to that. Inward, outward/outward, inward. Make life better, in your own way.

49 comments:

Andrea said...

"Sitting by yourself with a long book is quite unnatural by comparison. I think it could be said that the internet takes our urge to read and reintegrates us with society. It's more like the natural world that we evolved to live in: there should be the constant potential for interruptions and distractions; we should be giving and receiving communication to and from other people who are alive now and able to respond to us. In that light, long books distort our brains, and the internet brings us back to human society."

Or as the nightmare of my childhood said it: "Get your nose out of this book and talk to your boring relatives/the stupid, rude, bullying neighbor kids/your crazy sister. Girls aren't supposed to be left alone so they can think and do something useful; they're supposed to be available 24/7 to be distracted by every little dumb thing!" Thank you, but I've had all the "society" I can stand. Give me long books. Or the internet, where I can filter my contact with my fellow humans so all the creeps are blocked out.

edutcher said...

Very nice set of points. If you do programming and are trying to learn something new, there's a lot of how Ann puts it, "books that don't require linear reading at all. You can dip back and forth in a book and read snippets in very much the same style as web-surfing.".

Her point about the Net leading to community is also intriguing, although, in a lecture not long ago, the speaker said that only about 10% of Netizens actually comment and about 1% write a blog.
So we're still feeling our way along.

Andrea said...

...

Thank you, but I've had all the "society" I can stand. Give me long books. Or the internet, where I can filter my contact with my fellow humans so all the creeps are blocked out.

Well, most of them.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Even the fiction books I've been reading lately aren't linear. I'm constantly having to flip to the back and read footnotes. I need two bookmarks to keep track of what I'm reading, plus a map for geographical locations.

AllenS said...

I love me some internets. I joined Classmates, then Facebook, and I' ve gotten in contact with a lot of people from high school. The best thing is email. You can send someone a question at 3 am and not wake them up. Can you tell that I like to comment on this blog? I don't have a cell phone.

WV: boolo

At first I thought it said boob.

EDH said...

I'm not a fan or reading long books, especially fiction.

I always found a strong element of bondage and submission in the entire enterprise. Many authors seem to want to execise and maintain control over their readers, way past the point of communicating their central message.

Not unlike the urge that kept that girl locked away in a backyard compound of sheds and tarps for 18 years.

Heck, at the end of it she had a new "favorite author" too.

Big Mike said...

You mean Roger Ebert has read something besides The Communist Manifesto? I'm stunned.

Oh! Wait! He merely implies that he's read something besides The Communist Manifesto. That explains it, then.

Ann Althouse said...

"Give me long books. Or the internet, where I can filter my contact with my fellow humans so all the creeps are blocked out."

And eventually, a beautiful husband finds you. It's like Sleeping Beauty.

***

WV: annitee. Half Althouse, half manatee.

Ann Althouse said...

"Even the fiction books I've been reading lately aren't linear."

Jason is reading Choose Your Own Adventure books again.

Ann Althouse said...

"I always found a strong element of bondage and submission in the entire enterprise. Many authors seem to want to execise and maintain control over their readers, way past the point of communicating their central message."

I agree. I resist linear reading for this reason. I fight back for control.

This is why watching movies in the theater is such a problem. You have to submit to the whole 2 hours, with a story unfolding at exactly the pace the film editors decided on. At least with reading, you can speed up or slow down.

Oligonicella said...

Submit to? Bondage and submission?

So that's your intention when you write those long, linear posts about legal issues.

Chris said...

Facebook is inward? I don't get that at all. For me, the charm of Facebook is being able to keep up with far-flung friends. Old college friends who've reconnected & I get daily updates about grandkids, births, daily activities, whatever - what's inward about that?

Jason (the commenter) said...

Jason is reading Choose Your Own Adventure books again.

I have actually come upon footnotes where the translator advises the reader to skip over the rest of the chapter because he considers it tedious.

Lem said...

I might read a few pages in one, then switch to another, maybe rotate through the whole pile, very similar to the way I'd open up a set of tabs in my browser and cycle through them. And I like reference books and essay collections — e.g., a collection of movie reviews — that are best read by jumping around.

I've never red anybody saying you could do that, I just did it and felt that maybe I'm not a reader.

I stream movies the same way; three at a time, if they all start to bore me I'll just pick'm up later.

Come to think of it isn't our consciousness/thinking non liner?
I think you posted about this recently. Our minds are constantly jumping around like those fish that jump out of the water at the sound of a boat engine.

Its a wonder how people stay "right wing" or "left wing" all the time. Maybe they really don't and people just pretend they do because nobody has said it's ok.. or something.

I was at the 7/11 and came back with a tall dark brazilian cup of coffee.

Damon said...

Chris - "Facebook is inward?" You are right that it isn't. Facebook is a network maker and nothing inward at all. That was MySpace, and that is why Facebook crushed it.

I was thinking that took away Ebert's credability but I actually can identify with the article a bit. However, he basically likes the feeling of the tweets when someone has tweeted something profound... ok, probably not profound and more like glib. I don't follow tweeters, but I am pretty sure I have better things to do with my day.

Like hanging out in the Althouse cafe. Now that is a good time. And yes, it is like having a conversation in the comments. One of the many things that makes this place special.

Freder Frederson said...

in part because I have so many commenters who come here and make this feel like the lively coffeehouse or salon I always hoped I could find in real life.

God, Althouse's coffeehouse would be a nightmare. A bunch of rightwing assholes screaming at each other with me sitting in the middle trying to strangle Cedarford with his little Hitler moustache raving about how the Jews were trying to poison his coffee. Not to mention Titus making childish poop jokes.

Paco Wové said...

"At least with reading, you can speed up or slow down."

Or go back, or skip ahead. Or stop. Or put it down for a few days / weeks / months and think about it. Or throw it across the room.

Oligonicella said...

Note to those who can't stand reading linearly, don't read the last bit of Anna Karanina until you get enough from skipping around to understand her throwing herself under the train.

Oops.

c3 said...

Three professor comments in a row...
very linear!

WV: retif. What all Arizonans must do with their lawn each summer.

Ritmo Brasileiro said...

Great post.

I was going to say that this was a "good post", but then I got to the third graph.

It's a great post.

Ritmo Brasileiro said...

As far as the inward/outward distinction you note goes (and to be fair, it's not clear whether it's Ebert's characterization of reading novels as an inward activity or yours), the quality of interaction on Facebook seems a lot shallower than what you'd get in a good book. The interaction through Facebook might be more extensive, but obviously not that deep.

Maybe that's a necessary thing to have, but I can certainly understand Ebert's criticism if that's what he's trying to get at.

Lem said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sunsong said...

I love the subject of communication :-)

But I want to just address twitter in this first post. I think twitter can be whatever you want it to. You can follow a few and simply plug in to get the info you want. Or you can create a niche and find people from all over the world who are interesting in things you are interested in.

I love twitter because it is always moving. It's spirited. You have 140 characters. You have to know what you want to say :-)

And there's really very little argument. You say your piece and another says theirs and then another and that's it. If someone gets weird - you simply unfollow them. There's no need to become nasty or unfriendly.

Something that I've noticed that I find inspiring is that on twitter diverse people can co-exist and support each other. People from the right and left, Christians, New Age follow each other and read each others' ideas without having to fight over them.

In some ways twitter is like a stream of collective consciousness that you can step into and step out. What you miss you miss. And when there is a global event - they are all over it. You can read first hand accounts *before* the media. And, in a way, boundaries blur - you can have personal contact with Iranians as they protest - Russians, Germans, Brasilians, Indians, Pakstanis, Iraquis and on and on

roesch-voltaire said...

These interesting observations raise several questions for me. Does the natural world, our internal psyche as well as society, change over time. For example as I have grown older and more involved in my profession, I no longer have time to read War and Peace and tend to select short novels like Everyman by Philip Roth. Further there are far more entertaining distractions today than when the novel was popular and huge audiences would have read the most recent Dickens novel- were they in bondage or did they read as I do with an active imagination that contributes to the narrative? And does it make a difference as to what and why we are reading? Is it unnatural to set for hours and read a dense text on Japanese history by Carol Gluck in order to understand the formation of ideology in the late Meji Period. Is it more natural and social while reading to Google up Gluck articles and interviews and Skype a few friends to discuss the book? And when do we begin to notice that all these distractions, while bringing us back into society has also left us a bit fragmented?

Alex said...

This is why watching movies in the theater is such a problem. You have to submit to the whole 2 hours, with a story unfolding at exactly the pace the film editors decided on. At least with reading, you can speed up or slow down.

This is why the God Almighty Jesus himself invented DVDs. Hallelujah.

HKatz said...

were they in bondage or did they read as I do with an active imagination that contributes to the narrative?

It's also possible that back in the day there was, in general, a greater capacity for wonder and (either active or passive) captivation, and a greater reliance on one's own imagination for entertainment.

Reading with active imagination is the best way; and feeling like you are in a sense communicating with the author, characters, and ideas, or putting yourself into the book, thinking about it, questioning what it is you're reading or why things are unfolding as they are. I guess it would depend on the person though (and to some extent on what kind of book it is) - whether the reading is active or more a sense of passively getting dragged along or entrapped.

I also feel that, even when I go on to discuss what I've read with other people, I first need time alone with the book and to work things through myself.

damikesc said...

At the risk of being mean, I don't get why I should care what Ebert thinks on most issues. He may know movies well, but his writings demonstrate his grasp of issues doesn't really go much beyond movies.

In the end, there is no universal experience for anything. Facebook is annoyingly extroverted. if one assumes status updates are the ONLY thing there, then yeah, its really inward.

And let's not pretend a cogent argument that Twitter is far more inward focused than most social sites cannot easily be made.

SteveR said...

Twiiter looks outward? Seems like one way Facebook.. status update after status update. Perhaps that's how he sees it but the internet and it's various forms is not that easy to characterize.

George Grady said...

Twitter doesn't look outward. It projects outward. That's not even close to the same thing.

Justin said...

I don't assign much credibility to what Ebert writes, at least after his recent post stating his belief that video games are not art. I'm not going to go into it here, suffice to say that he gets to that position using nebulous definitions and a view that goes straight down his nose.

Penny said...

"Twitter doesn't look outward. It projects outward."

Isn't that dependent upon how you use Twitter? If you read other people's tweets more than you tweet yourself, it would be outward looking.

I've never even looked into Twitter, but Ebert changed my mind. I like the thought of following people all over the world.

Don't misunderstand, I love blogs, and as much for reading the comments as the posts themselves. The downside is that it is mostly USA focused, and I'd like to hear what people all over the world are talking about.

This is a GREAT post, Althouse. I would appreciate hearing user's views about Twitter.

Ash said...

I'm with George on this..."Twitter doesn't look outward. It projects outward."

To me, it's just a lot of noise, noise, noise - with an occasional RT high-five on the brilliance of someone's observation.

Yet, I still find myself wasting time on it.

Damn.

Paco Wové said...

"The downside is that it is mostly USA focused..."

I'm not sure what "it" is here, but if you're referring to the amorphous thing sometimes called "the blogosphere©™", I don't think that is at all true.

John Stodder said...

This was an excellent post, Ann, except for the comment about Ebert's Twitter feed being "excellent." I find it pathetic. And by that I mean, sad. It reads like the utterings of a lonely old man who is trying to start conversations, relentlessly, hoping someone will notice him.

For me, Twitter is like having thousands of hidden microphones picking up a wide assortment of comments of various kinds from people who have left their phones off the hook. I seldom contribute to it, but reading it is fascinating. Facebook is like blogging, but focused on the social aspects. I reached a lot more people with my blog, but got into fewer conversations, whereas my Facebook feed is the reverse -- like my blog, but read by people who give a crap what I have to say.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Further there are far more entertaining distractions today than when the novel was popular and huge audiences would have read the most recent Dickens novel- were they in bondage or did they read as I do with an active imagination that contributes to the narrative?

Don't worry. Historians have proven that no one was as superior as you until 1950 at least.

traditionalguy said...

I just read the post and comments...Bravo Professor! The beautiful intellect level shared here by our Professor actually does bring out the best in many of commenters.As an aside, finding the number of people anywhere actually reading as much and having as diverse a collection of interests as the commenters on Althouse is as hard as finding four leaf clovers. Thank you for the good that you do Dear Professor. Where else could I ever have met the likes of Trooper, Crack, Ritmo, Palladian, Meade, Edutcher, Alpha Liberal, Theo and so many others? IMO This Blog is a salon in the best tradition of a round-table discussion of many variously talented people.

roesch-voltaire said...

Paul I don't quite catch your snark. While I agree that reading today, particularly on the internet with its interruptions and distractions seems to mirror our social life, I wonder if there are times when we want to deeply absorb the material that we must spend hours of linear attention. Or another take on this was written by Niall Ferguson who noted about Richard Posner recent book that too much blogging means one isn't reading enough on the subject.

Joe said...

My wife twitters and so I've read some streams lately. It's totally narcissistic and a complete waste of time.

If a celebrity ever needs to feed their ego, there are few places better than twitter. The great part is that the fans feed their egos at the same time. It's quite nauseating.

(Yes, Facebook can be the same way with this crowd, but twitter makes it that much more focused and strips away any pretense of not being self-obsessed.)

Kensington said...

This thread makes me want to read choose-your-own-adventures straight through without making any choices or following the branches.

Andrea said...

"I'm not a fan or reading long books, especially fiction.

I always found a strong element of bondage and submission in the entire enterprise."

You say that like it's a bad thing. (And you know, this being the internet, I have a horrid temptation to link to certain sites. That I've uh, heard about not actually visited myself. Yeah.)

PatCA said...

Thoughtful post.

In some ways, the internet has led me to read more because the (mostly leftist) gatekeeper lords of information are no more--interesting book snippets from blogs, reviews, etc., tempt me to check them out of the library or, more likely, buy from amazon. I just finished Paul Berman's new book, which I would probably have never heard of were it not for Michael Totten's review.

OTOH, racing to the computer first thing every morning to read the Iraqi bloggers was like reading a Dickens saga, only it was in real time. Both experiences changed me, in different ways.

So yes, we are creating our reading experiences, and that's good.

Revenant said...

Facebook is communal, not "inward-looking".

ken in sc said...

This blog is better than a salon or coffee house discussion group because you don't have be in the in-crowd/cool kids to make a comment.

Wendy Kloiber said...

For the first six months after I found Twitter I went from reading novels daily to being unable to open one. Twitter functioned as a gateway to a cutting edge professional world I can't access in my small town. It took awhile for me to ground the enormity of what I was learning, to connect it to my consulting work.

I think what Ebert is trying to get at is the challenge of integrating the new web-based experience with earlier experience when the two were not continuous. Not a problem for Althouse - blogging met a need she'd already known she had, and drew on things she already did. But I suspect Ebert, like me, was surprised and a bit disturbed to feel the habits of a lifetime swept away so completely.

Penny said...

Thank you all for your comments about Twitter.

No one answered my question though.

Should I twitter to learn more about people around this world?

If not, why not?

jr565 said...

How does Twitter look outward, while Facebook looks inward? My guess is Ebert likes Twitter because it only allows you to type 140 characters, and thus tweets are easier to read and he just doens't have much of an attention span.

Plus he probably thinks facebook is too complicated to figure out, and is too overloaded with things to do (and in that he is right. The interface is god awful). PLus,, Twitter's icon is a cute bird that looks like it came right out of a disney movie and Facebooks icon is some non descript abstract faces on an ugly map.

Not to be too dismissive, but who puts much stock in either site?

Bob_R said...

There are a lot of interesting points in Ebert's post, but he is really off base in generalizing his experience on facebook to the rest of the world. He's a very well known TV personality and writer. Sure, he would spend a lot of time on FB narrowing his social network down to something manageable. But the reason FB is popular is that for most people it expands and energizes their network. Ebert (at least when reviewing movies) does a better job than most at keeping in mind how unusual his perspective is. Misses the boat here.

Bob_R said...

I have not gotten into Twitter. I've followed Instapundit for a long time and it seems to be similar to his blogging style - a short comment and a link. I can see how someone like Ebert with a gift for aphorism and a good eys for detail would be good at it.

Wendy Kloiber said...

It's been said that Facebook is about the friends you used to have and Twitter is about the friends you'd like to have.

Twitter is different than FB because of asymmetric following. And it's different from blogging in that it doesn't create a hosted salon - conversations are faster and more open. Everyone has the same ability to "frontpage" and you don't have to follow anyone on a thread who is boring you.

Some Twitter users, like @jayrosen_nyu and @kanter, use Twitter to "mindcast" instead of "lifecast" and that's where the potential for learning gets dramatic. I can't follow 300+ blogs, but can use Twitter as a digest, to see where I need to dig in.

Tom T. said...

Ebert thinks Facebook is inward because his alternative is a newspaper column and (formerly) a TV show, reaching potentially millions of people. For the rest of us who lack those forums, Facebook is as outward as we can get.

Also, Ebert recommends activities involving long attention spans because it validates his preferences; his job involves watching two-hour movies.