Ideas Worth Discussing

It has been broadly observed that the Internet, generally speaking, has shifted subtly but swiftly from a culture of comment to a culture of Liking.

To be sure, some ideas are worth spreading… but let us not rush to the conclusion the inherent worth of an idea is determined by its sharability.

Imagine sitting with a group friends who randomly spurt out the titles of articles that they have read. That’s interesting, you think to yourself. So you look up some of the articles and read them yourself. Then you spurt out the title to another group of friends, who are spurting out their own circulation of titles too. Other than impressing one another with our bibliographic prowess, what has all this spurting accomplished?

This may be a contemporary heresy, but I’ll venture to posit that link sharing itself is not necessarily a social behaviour. Just ask any reformist or revolutionary: the influence of a tract or treatise is not simply the degree to which it is read, but rather extent to which it mobilizes discourse. In other words, unless we talk about an idea — to say nothing of genuinely acting on it — we are accomplishing little more than spurting out article titles to one another.

Furthermore, we must ask: if we measure digital influence solely on the basis of who’s spurts garner the most reads, then how exactly are we defining influence in the first place? Could it be that this notion of influence has incentivized spurting, not discussing?

If everyone shared everything they thought was compelling, all the time, eventually nothing would be meaningful anymore: the more I rebroadcast every signal that comes across my radar, the more uncertain and fuzzy your metric for understanding my values becomes. The more I share, the more difficult it becomes for you tease the wheat from the chaff.

Despite my overuse of “spurting” as a pejorative term, I do not wish to suggest that sharing links is itself somehow “wrong” or morally inappropriate. I simply wish to contemplate my own agenda and aim for doing so. Instead of submitting ideas into the digital ether with a shotgun in the hopes that something will be rebroadcasted again by someone else, what if my overall goal in sharing a link was to initiate dialogue? In other words, what if my litmus test for “Should I post this?” is, simply, “Am I willing to devote the time and energy that would be required to gather with others to discuss this?”

To help prioritize the decision as to what I share, what if I self limited myself to, say, just one idea a day? I imagine a self-imposed curation of value: everything I share on a global network worthy of this article lead: “Out of all the data that I have sifted through in the past twenty-four hours, I believe that this idea most warrants our attention and engagement. Who else is willing to discuss how this knowledge or perspective this might affect our lives and communities?”

Perhaps the goal is not simply to find ideas worth spreading, but rather ideas worth discussing.

7 thoughts on “Ideas Worth Discussing

  1. There is an episode of Portlandia where the characters do exactly this: did you read the New Yorker, did you read Mother Jones

    Your idea of picking one thing worth discussing appeals to me very much. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. Write something on my paper notebook, one single idea, one highlight of each day, one funny thing.. something that makes a day memorable. It’s nearly impossible to discuss anything today, we want to perpetuate a pose – being positive, sarcastic, intellectual, sensitive, vulnerable, revolutionary – and what we share prepetuates and strenghtens this pose. We rarely read something critically. It’s impossible – the speed of information won’t allow it. I’ve been guilty of this as well, buy following and retweeting implusively and letting my inner monologue take the reigns of my self-expression.

    What is sad is that lately I’ve written directly to two bloggers whose blogs I really love just to tell them and let them know why I love what they do. They aren’t big names, just people with a personal blog who do their thing but there was no answer. I think the writing back might require a lot of effort, instead, the robot that tells you that so and so liked or reblogged your post gives you the instant gratification without the need to engage in conversation and discussion.

    I loved this post.

    • Hi Luisa– thanks for reading, and perhaps even more importantly, thank you for taking the time to share these thoughts. I have never seen that video clip before–but it is so relevant to this idea!

      I think you hit the nail on the head with the point about the time that it takes to critically formulate one’s own ideas in order to bring them to a discussion. Increasingly it seems that our Internet mediums are being designed for the quick “share”, not the reasoned response.

      I was thinking tonight how interesting it would be if there was a social network based on the principle that each user can only say or share one thing each day. It’s a compelling hypothesis to imagine a forum constructed in such a way as to leverage a limitation of sharing to promote greater mental investment in what is actually being shared. I am curious how this intentional “throttling” of exchange would affect the way we communicate… Or if such a self-limiting governor on the speed of the interactive flow would just be outright unappealing to the general populous in a rocket fire culture of click-scan-share?

      Of course, as individuals we do not need a system designed in order to do this. It’s a choice we can make for ourselves…just an interesting thought experiment to imagine a whole forum based on the concept. I have no idea if it would work or even if anyone would really care?

      • The idea of a social network to share one thing is interesting but if hundreds (or thousands) of people get on that social network then it becomes hundreds of things per day… the problem maybe is in the number of people in these networks. They are open-ended. This is one of the reasons I prefer blogs. I also went back to bookmarking things instead of subscribing. This way I visit my bookmarks once in a while instead of being bombarded by hundreds of links every day. It gets so overwhelming. Twitter is another matter. I have a severe Twitter problem :) though I uninstalled the app from my ipod touch so I only check twitter when I’m at the computer. I do miss discussing things in depth. I really feel I live in that episode of Portlandia sometimes.

        • I certainly agree with your preference for blogs. The flexibility in the format, and the depth of discussion they allow are still unrivaled, in my opinion. I also appreciate the way they “live” online for much longer than the items flowing through the flow of social update streams.

          That episode of Portlandia was terrific indeed. The more I think about it, the more it reminds me of College Humor’s “Twitter in Real Life” clip… – have you seen that one?

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this matter Mr Shelley. I don’t live in The United States and to an extent I think the prominence of social media link sharing has passed us by in my country. I always liked the concept of traditional blogs because I think they promoted the generation, sharing and discussing of ideas. I find now, even if I don’t re-share the content I consume, the very act of assimilating the content that flows through the social media channels I follow takes a sizable portion of my free time and energy. Thus picking out the one thing, and generating discussion surrounding the idea is sacrificed in favour of ‘not missing out’ on the information streaming by.
    A shame that this culture of consuming and sharing without the generation of thought and understanding around the topic has crept up on me, often without my consideration. Thank you again for drawing my attention to what is important.

    • Astute observation, Andrew – and very much ties in with what Louisa mentioned about the necessity of the time that is demanded if one is going to thoughtfully engage with content instead of just watching it flow by. I share your concern that this seems to be leading us to a place where we are in a constant state of consumption, with little to no reflection/praxis… almost like we’re too busy eating to “waste” time exercising! To over stretch this metaphor, one wonders what the consequence of this “content obesity” might be? What does it mean and matter that all we do is read and retweet? What happens when we’ve stuffed ourselves with ideas but are unable to get ourselves off the couch?

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