This week I read with interest the various news reports surrounding comments made by Baroness Greenfield, noted professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, about how social media is causing what she refers to as an “identity crisis” among its users.
The Baroness, who sits in the House of Lords within the British Parliament, and is a life peer of Ot Moor in the county of Oxfordshire, has claimed that the increased focus on the development of Internet friendships has the potential to ‘rewire’ the brain, leaving people craving instant gratification and nullifying their ability to concentrate for long periods of time.
She suggested that some Facebook users feel obliged to act like mini celebrities in an effort to attract attention, and only do things in their lives that are “Facebook worthy.”
“It’s almost as if people are living in a world that’s not a real world, but a world where what counts is what people think of you or (if they) can click on you,” she said. “Think of the implications for society if people worry more about what other people think about them than what they think about themselves.”
Quite. The Baroness had a few choice words to say about that other social network, too:
What concerns me is the banality of so much that goes out on Twitter. Why should someone be interested in what someone else has had for breakfast?
It reminds me of a small child, “Look at me Mummy, I’m doing this. Look at me Mummy I’m doing that.” It’s almost as if they’re in some kind of identity crisis. In a sense it’s keeping the brain in a sort of time warp.
It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf.
The Baroness was, of course, speaking to The Daily Mail, that veritable bastion of British newspaper journalism. She made similar remarks to the paper back in 2009, where she shared her horror about what social networking was doing to the nation’s precious children.
Before making these proclamations, the Baroness spent several years immersed in all aspects of social media, building up thousands of likes on her Facebook page and an army of followers on Twitter. She used the platforms to share and digest information, and was mindful that, in the interest of balance, she positioned herself in such a way that her research and findings would be both accurate and fair.
Oh, wait. Sorry. She didn’t do any of that. In fact, the Baroness didn’t do anything, except regurgitate the same biased and largely unfounded claptrap to the same downmarket rag. She doesn’t have a Twitter profile and the only presence she has on Facebook is to be found in one of the bog-standard (and, I have to say, eternally irritating) Wikipedia-looting community pages.
There’s no new research. I’m not convinced there was any old research. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Baroness hadn’t actually spoken to the Mail at all, and they’d simply re-written the original story from a slightly different angle.
In the past Greenfield has been heavily criticised for this line of thinking, notably by British science writer Ben Goldacre, who observed that the Baroness’s pronouncements are never supported by accompanying evidence, and that she shows alarming naivety by not being able to predict “that her ‘speculations’ and ‘hypotheses’ will inevitably result in scare stories in the press.”
On Goldacre, the Baroness replied that he was “like the people who denied that smoking caused cancer.”
Yes: this is the kind of monster that we’re dealing with. Of course, Greenfield is hardly alone in exposing her almost total disregard for the merits of Facebook et al. Last year, pseudo social intellectual Malcolm Gladwell poopooed the net benefits of social media, notably in its potential as a force for change. “Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?” he opined. This is the same Malcolm Gladwell who has openly admitted that he doesn’t have much use for the internet.
The medium has also made marketing maestro Seth Godin look uncomfortably out of touch, and even a little bit hypocritical. “I don’t use Twitter. It’s not really me,” he has said. “I also don’t actively use Facebook, and I’m not adding any friends, though I still have an account for the day when I no doubt will.” Strange, then, that he seems to make observations about the subject in every second or third article that he publishes on his blog.
All of this opinion, of course (because that’s all that it is), comes from the same place: fear. Fear of the unknown. Of change. Fear that what you’ve been doing and saying and preaching and selling your entire life no longer works. Fear that the world has passed you by. That you don’t get it. That you’ve turned into your parents. How did that happen? When did you suddenly become old-fashioned?
It’s greed, as well. Ironically, for attention, which can be so leveraged through social channels, but it’s also greed for respect. The Greenfields and Gladwells of this world cannot so easily be assured of this when the internet, and social media in particularly, dramatically levels the playing field, allowing the thoughts and ideas of anyone to rise to the very top – if they’re good enough.
We no longer have to read The New Yorker to read the best, because the best is anywhere and everywhere. Indeed, there’s every chance that the best won’t be found in The New Yorker. Sure, Gladwell’s critique received a ton of attention, but most of that was generated by Twitter. And that’s the oldest trick in the book – if you want to benefit fromthe most publicity, criticize the thing that’s the most public.
These are the same fears that are paralyzing the newspaper industry. But news isn’t going away – it’s simply the way that we consume news that is changing, and anyone who resists will (and must) be left behind.
After all, it’s less than a decade ago since we were all walking around listening to a handful of tracks on our portable CD players. Then Steve Jobs gave us the iPod, and things were never the same. My 10-year old son doesn’t even know what a CD is. And why would he? They were rubbish, and couldn’t hold a candle to the sheer, majestic and, I dare say, unmatched glory of vinyl.