Against Expressive Social Media

I’m sitting here starting an argument with you and you are starting an argument with me.

I am against expressive social media, I say. I think it is making us very dumb and we should use other forms of social media to teach kids.

“But, Mike,” you may be thinking, “why are you so binary, why not BOTH?”

“But, Mike,” you may be thinking, “you must respect the students and their expressive urge!”

“But, Mike,” you are thinking, “is this really an extended subtweet of something I said? Is it against me? It’s against me, isn’t it?”

Or perhaps you’re thinking, damn straight, it’s about time someone spoke against expressive social media. Sock it to ’em, Mike!

If you’re really enlightened maybe your opinion is that it would be silly to be for or against the article at this point. Let’s wait until the terms in the headline are defined. Then, after that paragraph, in the milliseconds after the definition — then I’ll decide for or against it.


I’m Sick of this Crap and I Want It to End

We do this all day on Facebook and Twitter and blogs. On Medium, or forums, or Slack. We argue or bond with others that share our opinions. We see an open box on the internet and type into it What We Think. Maybe we soften it. Or maybe, as is the case here, we say screw it, and just try to anger people, like I am doing now. But underneath it all is the idea that you try to convince me of something and I try to convince you and somehow down the line we end up smarter.

I could add caveats here about the cases where this works, but I don’t want to give you an out right now. The fact is it mostly doesn’t work. Most of the work here in a blog does not make me smarter. It makes me better at presenting things I’ve learned off-blog. It documents what I’ve learned, maybe, which is useful later. It influences you. But to the extent I am sitting here trying to persuade you of something, learning time is over.

There Was a Vision Once and This Is Not It

When I was in college I had decided to never become my Dad, who was an early programmer for Digital Equipment Corporation.

I was good at computer programming, and I had enjoyed it as a kid. I was in my first chat rooms in the late 1970s. My invites for my 5th birthday were printed out on that old green and white striped paper using a loop where my dad fed an array of names into a MUMPS program to make 20 personal invites (we invited everyone in the class). That was 1975.


But by college computing seemed boring. I was interested in music and art and philosophy. I dropped out of college and hitch-hiked and played guitar, under an illusion I was Bob Dylan. I thought big thoughts and read a lot of Joseph Campbell and Henry Miller in a variety of makeshift lodgings.


Yeah, it’s actually me. I really did want to be Dylan.

My dad worried about me, as one would about a son who is working two days a week as a janitor and sleeping outside on Cape Cod while writing crappy Henry Miller knockoff stories. He had this feeling that this might not be a sustainable way of living. When I moved back home and thought about going back to college in late 1990 he tried to talk me into looking into programming. I still wasn’t interested.

One day there was a photocopy on the kitchen counter of an article from a magazine. Just out on an otherwise empty counter. I looked at it.

“As We May Think?” I asked?

“Oh, yeah,” my dad said, as if the article had just been left there accidentally. “You might really like that. You should read it.”

It wasn’t very subtle.

But I did read it, and it opened my eyes. In the article, the author, writing in 1945, detailed things that looked like computers from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but were not used as glorified walkie-talkies, printing presses, or accounting machines but instead tools to truly augment thought.

Reading it didn’t change me overnight, but it opened a door for me. It made me realize that properly conceived computers were philosophical, firmly rooted in the humanities that I loved. I got on the Internet. I started playing with hypertext. When Mosaic came out, I hopped on board the web. And I dreamed big dreams.

Dreams of what? Dreams of the Memex, of course, that thought experiment of that 1945 author, Vannevar Bush:


The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex.

First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item.

When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

I loved this vision. A person pulling these various threads together, like Campbell pulling these various religions together or Miller jump-cutting through related scenes in 1930s Paris to form a literary montage.

I bought into the early hopes that the World Wide Web was really going to be a World Wide Memex, where people used it like this, as a tool for thought. And at the core of that vision was that idea that people would be using the web to try to construct and share understanding, not to argue about it.

Usenet Killed the Hypertext Star

Of course, that’s not how things turned out. The hyperlinked vision of the web was replaced by Usenet plus surveillance. Share and argue, argue and share. But now with personalized ads for things you just bought last week. (Amazon: “This guy bought a Chromebook, he must really like Chromebooks. Show him some more Chromebooks.”)

It’s a step back, but no one seems to notice. Or care.

In my more pessimistic moments, I come to think that the thing that poor Vannevar Bush didn’t get, and that Doug Engelbart didn’t get, and that Alan Kay didn’t get is people really like the buzz of getting beliefs confirmed. And they like the buzz of getting angry at people that are too stupid to get what they already know. Confirming beliefs makes you feel smart and arguing with people makes you feel smarter than someone else. Both allow you to snack on dopamine throughout the day,  and if you ever need a full meal you can always jump on Reddit.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

At Some Point the Candy Stops

I’m rambling here because I’m sick of making sense, I guess. But the thing is we had and have technologies that look like that dream of the old web, where an individual tries to construct knowledge and prod it. To test their knowledge. To try to broaden their understanding of both their knowledge and the limits of their knowledge by attempting to explain things from a more neutral point of view. I’m a broken record on this, but wiki is a way to do this. There are other ways too — things like annotation tools have some promise, if they become more than glorified comments.

But none of these will give you the buzz. So we’re a bit stuck, like sugar addicts of caffeine junkies trying to go straight. My wife Nicole teaches K-12 art, and has taught in K-5 classes that are used to getting candy as an award for very basic good behavior. That’s a tough room to walk into, and that’s kind of the room we’re in. Do we give students more candy, or do we find a different way?

When I started this blog a decade ago, my first post was this:

We need to stop asking how we can communicate with our college students in their idiom, which is a valid question, but ultimately a marketing and customer service issue.

We need to start asking the real question, which is how do we teach our students to collaborate and communicate in ways fit for the agile projects the future requires.

I meant agile here in its normal lay sense: that we need to be fast and flexible in our thinking and our doing, and we need to provide tools that support that.

I’m not sure that’s what we’re doing, though. I’m not saying that classes shouldn’t be fun. But have we truly thought about the type of collaboration that the future needs and designed education to fit that? Or are we chasing engagement without concern for the needs of our students and broader society? Are we truly developing new ways of working together with one another? Or are we teaching old ways with a better looking site theme? Are we opening their minds or closing them? Are we building a life of the ego or a life of the mind?

I’ll apologize for this post in a couple days, probably. There are fifteen unfinished posts in my queue that express this better than this, but for some reason the dam just broke today.

9 thoughts on “Against Expressive Social Media

  1. Mike,

    I’m happy the dam broke!

    I think you bring up a very interesting point, that the visions of Bush and Engelbart and Kay are optimistic, but at times missing key elements. And maybe that’s fine as far as visions go, but actually attain them, you need to address real issues.

    So while many of these visions are about an interconnected, interpersonal collaborative network of thought, the actual devices that could enable that thought also enable feeding our “buzz” (say, how Facebook exploits our love for gossip). One way to help is to design a system that favours collaboration but somehow disfavours stuff like gossip (the meta lesson here is to remember systems are not neutral!)

    But we also need to somehow teach everyone meta cognitive lessons so that they don’t fall into these pits themselves too.

  2. I made a version of the DigiPo toolkit for a team of European journalists. The first bit of feedback: “Fun and addictive.” So maybe we /can/ design a process that marshals evidence, delays consensus, deepens understanding, promotes empathy, /and/ delivers a buzz.

    Hope so.

  3. I’ve been wrestling with these ideas recently (often provoked by your blog posts) about how I spend my time and what I’m really doing on the internet. Over the last couple of years I’ve been working on what I guess one could call a “minimalist” lifestyle or “intentional living” which essentially boils down to figuring out the things I really value and removing things that distract me from what I value. I’d done this in many of the obvious and stereotypical ways over the last couple years (e.g. decluttering, waste reduction, etc.), but I recently realized I wasn’t always doing that with the time I spent reading, or really, time spent staring at a screen.

    I spent a lot of time click, click, clicking on link after link. That hard to break twitch of, “I have a second let me just click on the reddit app on my phone”. The election of Trump, like for many people recently, has been the thing that convinced me to start cleaning up my act. I’ve divested a lot of my time that once went to staring at reddit, facebook, and twitter to reading more blogs, long-form articles and essays, and other things that prompt me to do a little more research and seeking. I value things that make me think and give me something to chew on. Things that have research behind them and make it easy to fact check them instead of making it hard to track down their sources (pet peeve: when articles don’t link to their source or at the minimum give me a citation that can help me find what they are using as the source of their information).

    So, I guess this is all to say your blog continues to reaffirm some of the ideas I’ve long felt haha. But seriously your blog has been a good reminder of what I do value and that I need to continue to realign my actions in accordance with that.

    • This makes me happy, even if it is confirmation bias. 😉

      Seriously, I think it starts with a bit of detoxing, and then as Jon notes, maybe finding a buzz of another type somewhere else. To a certain extent that deep flow that Bush talks about is buzz, it’s just more like a cello in an age of pizzicato violins. It’s lower longer notes and a different sense of flow and purpose.

      And I’m so glad you still read this old blog. Crazy I met you in Fredericksburg almost seven years ago. I’ll be back in March, see you then?

      • Exactly, I’ve been seeking that deeper buzz (the kind of buzz I recall having plenty of time to seek in college).

        Yes, I can’t believe that was 7 years ago (which means I graduated college about 7 years ago!). I will definitely be attending your talk. Looking forward to it!

  4. I guess that what Englebart and Bush were missing, in their naivety, was just how far off the end of the curve their inhibitory neurological systems were developed past the norm, and past what we’re able to expect for students these days.

    I’m sure you have tons of background on how to make something feel good, but was something I watched recently that occurred to me while reading this. If we can’t assume that someone’s coming to the internet party with a well-defined goal and a structured capacity to pursue that goal by breaking it into subtasks that will provide more immediate subconscious gratification — then what kind of system could we build that guides people in the direction of constructive thought anyway?

    I liked Andreas Stuhlmüller’s Dialog Markets idea ( but I think the key assumption to question is that someone is *motivated* enough to pursue some really high-level goals past multitudes of distractions? Is it just impossible to build a healthy and functioning society without that assumption? Maybe, possibly, systems could project empathetically about which distractions to provide, and when?

  5. So Mike,
    I read these backwards and I’m now wondering if you’ve since come to a different state of mind. I started from Michael Feldstein’s post[1] about your “Power of Explaining” post[2]. It would seem to me that the typing into the box is more about understanding things for yourself under the guise of trying to convince someone else of something. However, this requires an intention of explaining rather than arguing. I suppose that’s another post though? Did I miss the mark?

    “His basic argument is that we learn best when we are explaining things. That certainly rings true to me personally. I often don’t fully know what I think on a topic until I write a blog post about it”

    Perhaps this is the difference…
    “When we argue we become dumber, more blind to our own lack of knowledge and logical inconsistencies. When we try to explain or summarize how things work, on the other hand, we suddenly realize that we don’t know as much as we think we do, and we tend to moderate our opinions, and be more open to data that may conflict with our beliefs. “

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