Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On Twitter

Since I first became aware of this thing called Twitter back in 2008, I have questioned its value, just as I would with any new gadget or any trend in our cultural zeitgeist. I am by nature a contrarian, one who is not inclined to go along with something new just because it’s “the latest thing.” It’s not that I won’t come around eventually—I often do—but I require demonstrable proof of worth before jumping on the proverbial bandwagon. That’s because I really don’t believe in bandwagon-jumping in general. Performing an action because it’s being marketed to you, because someone is spending a great deal of time and effort to get you to buy into it, just doesn’t seem logical to me, and never has. I guess part of this mentality was formed by my own personal circumstances, and by growing up in Washington DC in the 70s, a period of intense cynicism and self-interest. My father was a lawyer, and I learned fairly early on that I had better have my facts down if I wanted to hold my own with him. Dealing with him was often difficult because he had a brilliant mind and rarely lost an argument, legally or otherwise. He would hold forth on and we would all be forced to listen whether we wanted to or not. It got so that I would take the opposite point of view whenever I talked to him just to antagonize him, just to get his attention at all. It became a defense mechanism, one that did no good for our father-daughter relationship and which made forming any sort of personal relationship very tricky. I spent years keeping people at arm’s length because of my argumentative nature, because of habits formed around the dinner table. But I gained a great deal of respect for facts in the process.

At a certain point in your life, you are able to look back on decisions you’ve made and see them in some sort of perspective. You may not ever be completely settled, completely satisfied with where you are in the world, but you at least come to terms with your mistakes, accept your personal weaknesses for what they really are: part of what makes you human. I’ve come a long way from what I was in my youth, and I think I have learned a lot about myself. I’ve spent countless hours studying for not one but two advanced degrees, and I think my critical thinking skills are pretty good. So why not use them? I didn’t come all this way to do what everyone else does, to become just another dollar sign in someone else’s income stream.

The information overload from which we all suffer is not the result of technological gadgets, but of our failure to use them properly. We accept what technology hands us instead of making it work for us. Technology gives us tools that, if used intelligently, can make our lives so much better, yet so many of us let it dictate our every move. The communications value of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter has been demonstrated time and again when major world events happen, when disaster strikes and people need to share information quickly. The problem I have with social media is not its abundance of information but its relevance and reliability. I don’t need to read hundreds of tweets from people I don’t know about a subject about which they may not know anything more than I do in order to form an opinion about it. I am capable of garnering the facts from reliable sources and formulating my own opinion. To me, the danger of Facebook and Twitter is this echo chamber effect—people who already share common interests bouncing the same ideas back and forth without critical analysis, without concern for whether or not there is any truth or validity involved. What’s that cliché about opinions and assholes? Everyone has one. Indeed, we are all entitled to our own opinions about anything and everything—it’s one of the values our country was founded on. That’s great, but I don’t need to waste precious hours of my day hearing them all.

In a recent interview in NewYork magazine, Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown discusses the future of media and the changes wrought by the Internet, and she has some remarkable things to say about social media. I don’t always agree with her, but I have to give her credit for voicing an opinion that won’t be popular with readers. When asked about Twitter, she responds, “…it always feels so self-admiring to tweet. As if you sort of expect people to find you interesting whatever you have to say…. I kind of think it feels very narcissistic to tweet.”

Exactly. Twitter doesn’t make you smarter or more interesting—it only makes you a person with an opinion and a Smartphone (or laptop or tablet or whatever you use to get on the web). People who are funny or insightful or knowledgeable are just as much so on Twitter and Facebook, and those who aren’t, well, posting your every waking thought or describing every single you do in the course of a day on a social media app doesn’t make you someone that’s necessarily worth listening to. As a matter of fact, I would argue that most people aren’t all that interesting anyway, and I’m not following them on Twitter or "friending" them on Facebook just because it’s the thing to do. These social media tools are capable of so much more. At last I not only can go directly to the source for my news, but I can get it immediately all in one place. So why should I care what the Snookis of the world have to say about Sandy?

So yes, I’m finally on Twitter, but if you think I’m going to be on there spouting everything that pops into my head, you’re mistaken. And if I don’t follow you, don’t take offense. I’m using Twitter as a news feed and nothing more.  If you want my opinions—and I’m guessing if you’re reading this you do—this blog is where you come to find them. I’m not going to filter complex issues down to 140 characters just so they’ll have an audience. The world is a complicated place, and things happen that deserve detailed analysis and critical thought. It takes time to see the big picture, and that’s not what social media is good at. The web judges things immediately and in extremes—it tends to attract people with the most polarized viewpoints; it’s loaded with knee-jerk reaction, with folks who have very strong opinions that don’t fall in the middle of the spectrum but at the ends. Social media doesn’t deal in shades of grey. Twitter cannot and should not be source of information in and of itself or a forum for critical discussion but instead should be the catalyst, the engine that drives us there.

Twitter is not the be-all end-all, but is only a technological tool, and as such is only what we make of it; instead of tweeting our every waking thought, we should all probably just shut up and listen because, as Tina said, most of us are just not that interesting.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012, or What I Learned From Sandy

1) Backup generators don’t necessarily go to those who need them most, and sometimes they don’t work. Several hospitals lost generator power due to being flooded. How is it possible no one thought this would happen, especially at the Shore? Also, it is not mandatory for gas stations, grocery stores and cellular towers to have backup generators. How is this not a security issue? And then there are the people with generators in their vacation homes while entire buildings were in the dark.

2) Greed and desperation don’t take a holiday. At least three shooting incidents occurred in Asbury Park immediately after the storm, and several more in the weeks that followed. Then there were the handymen and repair businesses—some more legitimate than others--who descended within hours of the storm. And let’s not forget the many examples of price gouging, from gas to water to batteries.

3) Neither does entitlement. The melee at Wegman’s and other grocery stores on the day following the storm was downright shocking, especially considering many folks can’t afford or didn’t have access to a vehicle to even get there. Then there were the fights and cutting in line both there and at gas stations, which speak for themselves.

4) Not everyone pays attention to pre-storm instructions. The number of people who didn’t plan ahead and fill gas tanks, bathtubs and water bottles, empty refrigerators of perishables and buy ice, candles, matches and batteries is pretty amazing. It’s not like we didn’t get any warning. And everyone should have a disaster plan for his or her household, so if they’re forced to leave quickly, they have what they need. In this age of information, people really should take care of these details. Then there are those who didn’t make any sort of plans for their animal friends and left them behind with no food and water to fend for themselves. Your pets give you everything and they ask nothing in return, and you repay them by leaving them alone and terrified? There are all sorts of pet-friendly resources out there, especially after Katrina. It’s a shame more weren’t able to take advantage.

5) People can be incredibly generous and selfless. The outpouring of support—financial and otherwise—after the storm was heartwarming. Countless opened their doors and their hearts to others in need in countless ways. The local SPCA went door to door in storm-ravaged areas to make sure people—many of whom were trapped in their neighborhoods because their vehicles were destroyed—had enough food and other supplies for their pets. Many of these folks stayed behind—putting themselves at risk--because they didn’t want to leave their companion animals behind.

6) They can also be insensitive assholes. How much of a jerk do you have to be to put up a tent outside Wal-Mart, Best Buy, etc. so you can be first in line to buy stuff you don’t really need when there are actually people living in tents because they lost their homes?

7) Scarlett O’Hara lives. Sort of. “I’m never going without electricity again.” Demand for generators—both before and after Sandy—was unprecedented. Except that not everyone can afford to buy a generator, let alone keep filling it with gas (natural or otherwise). And don’t you feel the least bit sheepish about not inviting any of your less fortunate neighbors in to share the wealth? Then there were those with solar panels who also had no power because most can’t afford the expense of battery backup to store the excess juice. So much for going green.

8) You can live without television and the Internet. I did, for five whole days. And you know what? The silence was kind of refreshing. And it makes people get outside, where there are all sorts of things to do that don’t involve pointless gossip. Technology can make your life so much better, but it can’t save you from yourself.

9) You can also live without the microwave. Cooking with gas and using only non-perishables was a challenge that required creativity and ingenuity; I actually kind of enjoyed it—and was grateful to have both gas and water to cook with when so many didn’t.

10) Everyone has his or her own storm story, and they will tell anyone who will listen. And keep telling it. And telling it. And telling it.

Everyone was affected but not in equal measure, and everyone wants—and needs—to talk about it, and that’s fine. But enough already. So you had no light for one day—it’s not really a tragedy. In fact, it’s kind of good for people to be jolted out of their routines once in a while. Stop telling me how it sucked to brew coffee the old-fashioned way, and be glad you had coffee to brew.

In the aftermath of the storm, we have all heard—and said—all the clichés. We are all lucky. It could have been so much worse. Others have it worse than I do. There is that cliché that disasters bring out the best and worst in people, and for the most part that’s true. I just wish we’d learn a little more from all this, and that we wouldn’t lose the best of ourselves so easily or so quickly.