What’s the Big Idea?

Neal Gabler has a column in today’s New York Times arguing that our contemporary culture is bereft of “big ideas.” Our evening talk shows are dominated by pundits rather than thinkers; our news magazines lack essays by public intellectuals; and our ability to process ideas has been weakened by the glut of information that has become our daily norm. Gabler develops this thesis out from his reading of an Atlantic article about “Big Ideas” that seemingly substitutes observations for genuine Big Ideas, and while I might share his skepticism about the article, I’m reluctant to accept many of his arguments about whether “we” have a dearth of thinking, much less how we’ve goten to this point.

Gabler eventually gets around to the chief villain in this story, and as you might guess, it’s social media, Twitter and Facebook in particular. Gabler suggests that these sites entrench a culture of narcissism and a focus on gathering information, on knowing things rather than thinking about things. And for the most part, Gabler seems to imply, we are obsessed with gossip and trivia, caught up in knowing about the personal lives of others (whether they are friend, acquaintances or celebrities). He comments at one point that “We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information.”

Although he skirts carefully around making an argument based in the logic of technological determinism, Twitter, with its 140-character soundbites, seems to reduce the possibility of intellectual conversation to the point that we get vacuous discussions of what we’re having for lunch. Even if we meet “strangers” via these sites, this is not the same as expanding one’s intellectual horizons. However, like many people who criticize the use of social media, Gabler seems unfamiliar with the ebbs and flows of how Twitter and Facebook conversations function. Yes, I may have mentioned the omelette I made yesterday with homemade tomatillo salsa on Facebook, but I also link to blog posts, articles, videos, and other forms of discussion that extend well beyond 140 characters. In essence, Gabler is reinforcing what might be called the Soundbite Fallacy, the idea that the shortened individual posts on Twitter inevitably reduce our ability to think and engage, that the form of Twitter determines the communication, when in fact the hyperlink and the response  (the @otherTwitteruser) are, in fact, integral parts of the way we communicate within social media (I made a version of this argument several years ago for AlterNet).  Although Facebook and Twitter are often treated as sites that pull us in, links, photos, and threaded conversations may also direct us outward to read elsewhere.

There were other problems as well. The article seemed to offer a universalized account of our current “Information Age:” He never quite stipulates whether he is referring to U.S. culture or not, although most of his examples draw from American culture or media, even if he occasionally makes reference to world events (such as the rioting in England, which has, in fact been the subject of quite a bit of thoughtful discussion). Talk shows outside the U.S. are often quite a bit different, and usage rates of Twitter and Facebook vary by age, gender, class, and race. There likely is a decline in the kind of reading culture that Gabler describes, but I think it’s worth following how Kindles, Nooks, Ipads, and other tools feed into different forms of reading in ways that might complicate some of Gabler’s arguments.

I don’t entirely disagree with his thesis about social media potentially reinforcing narcissism, but I don’t think it has to function that way. And while there may no longer be a central art critic or economist who can galvanize debate within an entire field, that may be a product of a more egalitarian intellectual community, one in which writers operating outside of more centralized locations are in a position to see their ideas flourish. I think it’s possible that this fragmentation may contribute to the problems that Gabler is trying to diagnose, in that we tend to place ourselves in intellectual silos (Cass Sunstein talks about the role of social media in creating echo chambers), where a large segment of the population no longer accepts the validity of scientific research, but that’s far from universal. I didn’t mean to address Gabler’s arguments in such detail, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that the content of social media’s forms is far more complicated than Gabler allows. Yes, I might tell you what I had for lunch today, but I may also collaborate with you on assembling new ideas about teaching, about communication, or about anything else.

1 Comment

  1. This Week in Review: Twitter and big ideas, praise for the NYT’s pay plan, and more trouble for Murdoch » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism Said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    […] users to big ideas, to point outside of its 140-character limits through hyperlinks. Media prof Chuck Tryon, author Stephen Baker, and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick all made that argument, with Masnick […]

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