Social media is often credited with revolutionizing communication. You can use Facebook to reconnect with old friends, or Twitter to follow your favorite celebrities. You're always in touch with the entire world. That's a good thing for online communication, right?
I'm not so sure.
Before you accuse me of being a cranky old geezer that can't keep up with the rest of the world, let me say that I'm an active social networking user. I user Facebook to plan events with my friends. I share things that interest me on Google Buzz. I regularly use Twitter's real-time search to figure out what weird things are going on in San Francisco. I believe that social networking is incredibly powerful, and it's not just a fad.
However, I really do think that sites like Facebook and Twitter are killing intelligent discussion online. How? They're killing intelligent discussion by making unintelligent discussion too easy. Five years ago, if you had an interesting thought to share, you'd write a blog post, or go to a message board, or maybe send it in an email. All of these formats encourage thoughtful, complete messages. You start an idea, then develop it, then conclude it. This is how writing has worked for centuries, and for the most part I think it's a good system.
Enter Twitter. Now, rather than writing a full thought, you just spit out 140 characters. Just enough to start an idea, but not enough to finish it. For example, instead of writing this blog post, I could tweet, "are fb and twitter killing discussion on the web? wat do u think?" That's just not an interesting thought. Sure, in my head there's an interesting thought, but the tweet itself is just a meaningless question without context. I enjoy brevity and all, but many interesting ideas need more than 140 characters.
Similarly, let's say you're reading a blog post and you liked it and want to take an action. In the past, you would leave a comment with your point of view. If enough people left comments on a blog, a community would form and the conversation in the comments could be even more interesting than the blog posts themselves. Now what happens? You click the "like" or "retweet" buttons and you move on. Retweeting is so much easier than actually contributing your own opinion, so that ends up being what everyone does.
My favorite example of this is a website called SmallBizTrends.com. It's a very popular blog for small businesses. According to Alexa, it's the 8,000th most popular site on the internet which means it has a ton of readers. And yet when you scroll down the list of posts, you see a ghost town in the comments. I'm looking in at the home page right now and the top three posts have 1 comment each, but an average of 65 retweets. This means that 65 people thought it was worth sharing the posts with their twitter followers, but none of them seemed to think it was worth adding to the discussion. Because adding to the discussion requires actual thought. And In the "micro-blogging" world of social networking, things that require thought are just too much work.
I don't mean to suggest that the social networking companies are to blame. They're just building businesses that encourage fleeting and unsubstantial conversation. Ultimately the users are at fault. It's not Mark Zuckerberg's responsibility to encourage everyone to say interesting things online, but he sure is making it easy not to.
What do you think about all this? If you agree with me, retweet this blog post. If you disagree, like it on Facebook.