Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tweeting, The Loss of Surprise, Modesty and Common Enterprise

My friend Lori shared a column yesterday by David Brooks entitled "The Modesty Manifesto".

Brooks's point is that our current social ills might be an effect caused by our inflated sense of our selves. I balked at this notion at first but changed my mind. I think Brooks is right.

My mind was changed when I considered his premise relative to another day within the advertising community and the adoration for the increase in unoriginal observation facilitated by Twitter and Facebook status updates.

I remember when being "followed" was a sign of paranoia or a federal investigation not a pretense to importance based on 140 characters.

Brooks writes,
"In short, there’s abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me — to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion."
My sensitivities to this may be enhanced by the surfeit of pride exhibited by social media strategists who speak of consumer "eco-systems" in tones that can only honestly be defined as pseudo-intellectual. I mean when did "people-pleasing" become an avenue for insight into human nature? My survival job too often sacrifices intellectual rumination and deep thought to the acronym adorned altar of social media.

The providing philosophy of the industry is predicated on normalizing the self-erosion found in popularity contests.

Which of course is driven by the fallacy that everyone is an individual as long as everyone's individuality mirrors the individuality of everyone else.

It seems that the level of scrutiny that empowered the parachute pants rage in my teens is now the considered form of self and social reflection. Fads will always be a constant in our lives because we are social animals and our evolved survival instinct makes us want to be accepted by the herd but today the time horizon for fad adoption and rejection is measured in hours rather than months.

Does the lack of privacy we invite with every social experience we encounter lead us to a damaged sense of modesty which deprives us of the level of idiosyncratic joy that inspired the first parachute pants wearer to don his pseudo-military garb and "pop and lock" at the back-to-school dance?

I love social media and am addicted to Facebook and have a Twitter account (which I use as a news feed mostly) but think it might be healthy for our culture to investigate the encroachment on modesty and privacy these technologies have and how the instantaneous publishing possibilities they render keep us from paying attention when new ideas demand reflection rather than tweeting.

I was researching depression yesterday which led me to listen to Nirvana and that reminded me of their acoustic gig on MTV where Cobain finished the set with the Leadbelly tune "Where did you Sleep Last Night". I YouTubed the performance and watched it.

Two things struck me.

Everyone in the audience was staring at this grunge god croaking out a folk-song about murder (no one was tweeting) and the performance made me long for the time when an artist might make the "F-it" adjustment and share a real risk based in a long-held private love that informed his entertainment (but might have contradicted his expected brand image).

The former observation is simply a recognition of the innovation adoption curve with MTV as an artifact but the latter seems to me evidence of why I think instantaneous reach for everyone is troubling.

Cobain loved folk music and if you listen beneath the dropped D tunings and distortion peddles of his grunge hits you will hear the same melodious rumble that drives great story songs.

That love demands time, awe, and modesty enjoyed in a very private space where the inspiration for the affection can become personalized with rumination.

I don't think we have the same sense of slowness today but instead are addicted to the speed at which we can emoticon our every nano-second and somehow think this is allowing us an honest understanding of our selves.

My industry of course encourages this behavior because the shape of the flock and its density is all that matters when considering the price of bird-feed.

But the thing we are missing when chasing after all of our tweets is that true evolutionary adaptation happens at the local level.

From the outside it looks like starling group flight is the work of a grand choreographer and the beauty of its design is rooted in the sameness of its constituents.

It isn't.

The flock only occurs because local biological laws within individual birds correspond to the environment in such a way to create the flock.

The real beauty is the individual adaptation made at the organism, even cellular level, not the product of these local laws.

The flock of starlings that offer grand geometric predictability is predicated on an individual bird's response mechanism to her immediate surroundings.

Cobain's passionate performance was predicated on his local response to his immediate surroundings.

Both adaptations take an appreciation of time working on individuals that seems ill-afforded in our current media space.

When I consider the emphasis we place on our personal uniqueness and desire to be followed I worry about our common good and the ideas we miss for the desire to be the first to announce how special we are.

Or as Brooks says,
"Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise."

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