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Social Media in Government Reading Discussion: Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

This week we read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Why I assigned this text

Every medium creates its own orthodoxy. You can tweet that. And the reason you can tweet that is because the technical strictures of Twitter push effective tweets to the limits of the sense:syllable ratio, even at the expense of tone, nuance, and sometimes even grammar. But people learn how to read tweets, and once they do, the idioms of Twitter often show up in their non-Twitter speaking and writing (have you ever said to a friend “btw, have you seen. . .” or tried to use a hashtag in a written communication?). This is exactly the point of The Shallows.

Social media are not just tools for communicating with other people, they are instruments of thought itself: they shape how we think even as they help us learn what we think about. The brevity of a tweet teaches us to think brief thoughts. The value of sharing, and the small space given for a facebook post, leads us to think in ways that are accessible to many people and take up little real estate. But what happens when we need to think comprehensively about a topic, or communicate a thought that exceeds the 140-character limit, or 250-pixel limit imposed by most social media?

These are the questions raised by Carr, and as social media practitioners, we need to answer them thoughtfully if we are to maintain a deep dialogue both internally, and with external audiences.

Social is more than Facebook and Twitter

Of course, the answer is staring us in the face. Social media are more than Facebook and Twitter. Wikis (like this one you may have heard of), and other knowledge bases (like this one) have social layers built on top of them, through which we make their information more accessible, but which themselves remain impervious to the demands of the quicker social media.

So what?

Much—maybe even most—of what social media professionals do will be done on Facebook, Twitter, and other media that are more centered on connection rather than contagion (see this post for terminology). But sometimes we need to include information that is more complex, comprehensive, or convoluted than can fit within the envelope of most sites that focus on sharing. It’s critical that social media practitioners be as adept at finding, editing, and generating that content on those platforms as they are at disseminating the content through social media.

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