human behavior

Small talk, small change

Posted in Habits & Manners, Recommended Reading by humanb on October 10, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell has a thought-provoking piece in the New Yorker at the moment, about the very limited role social media can play in affecting profound change. The gist of his argument is here:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

The full piece is well worth reading if you have any interest in the idea of social media as a tool for change, though Gladwell would argue they are poor tools indeed where change requires significant risk. The piece is also worth reading for Gladwell’s discussion of the courage, commitment, discipline and organization that characterized the Civil Rights Movement.

But there’s a smaller argument here that he isn’t interested in making, that explains to me why I find Twitter and Facebook so deeply unsatisfying.

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties.

In March there was a short blog post in the New York Times called Talk Deeply, Be Happy?, about a small study which suggested (but did not prove) that people who engaged in more small talk were less happy than those who engaged in deeper, more reflective conversation. While Gladwell admits (and I agree) that the weak ties of acquaintances are a superior source of new ideas and information, this depends upon the inclination of such acquaintances to engage in meaningful information exchange through online media.

About the study:

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved 79 college students — 32 men and 47 women — who agreed to wear an electronically activated recorder with a microphone on their lapel that recorded 30-second snippets of conversation every 12.5 minutes for four days, creating what Dr. Mehl called “an acoustic diary of their day.”

On the author of the study, a psychologist at the University of Arizona:

[He] proposed substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.

In reading the above, I instantly thought of the allure of Facebook and Twitter: the opportunity for inherently social animals to connect with other people – or rather, to connect with as many people as is technically possible. How many Facebook or Twitter users do you know who are satisfied with only 20 ‘friends’ or followers?

I would be interested to see Dr. Mehl conduct a sister study with Twitter and Facebook users versus say, predominantly email users or people who shun social media entirely for a face-to-face tête-à-tête. Twitter is for many little more than a “diary of their day” and one that forces the author to engage in talk so small as to render correct grammar passé and substance frequently elusive. Certainly someone with a talent for words and interesting insights could impart meaningful messages in short Tweets. That would be a delightful and interesting literary and philosophical challenge. But the trend is in the other direction. We all know what your average Tweet or Facebook status update discusses. These snippets are rarely more than the abbreviated and highly selective narration of a person’s afternoon. A text-based form of reality TV requiring an attention span of about 10 seconds.

Don’t misunderstand me. Reading Tweets or Facebook status updates can be fairly entertaining, but so can watching home renovation shows. But neither satisfies.

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties.

I need stronger ties.

[H]uman beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives.

There’s no meaning in small talk. It is by definition superficial. It’s the stuff of noisy cocktail parties and large group dinners. No one thinks critically about what they say – which is fine – because no one else is really listening.

This is why I blog. I’m trying to create meaning here, to make some kind of sense of things. I may not be succeeding at all in that regard; but the exercise is deeply satisfying nonetheless. And the invisible readers with whom I communicate in a largely one-sided exchange may not number in the thousands, but if they get to the end of my winding blog posts, it means they’re actually listening.

This makes me happy.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

For more on my disenchantment with Facebook, see this post.

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One Response

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  1. JW said, on October 10, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Malcolm Gladwell FTW!


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