You are what you consume: Facebook v. Twitter

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You are what you read, watch, and listen to. The content you consume changes how you think about the world, and determines what topics you’re aware of and concerned about. Over the past century, countless thinkers have explored this idea, and from a variety of perspectives.

McLuhan focused on the media type (i.e. books vs. television), and asserted that the medium through which content is delivered changes how the content is encoded by the creator, and decoded by the recipient. More recently, Nicholas Carr argued that ways digital media affects our ability to focus and follow complicated arguments. Eli Pariser coined the term filter bubble to describe the way social media is designed to show us content we already agree with—clustering us into like-minded groups infrequently exposed to ideas that challenge our existing attitudes and beliefs.

But what if social media, the same technology that helped create today’s highly polarized political environment, could be used to reverse the trend? What if you could assemble a custom feed of diverse thinkers representing an eclectic range of voices from across the political spectrum, or whichever thing you’re into. And since your thoughts are influenced by the content you consume, this could help your thinking be more inclusive of a range of views. It’s a personalized news feed more directly curated by you, rather than Facebook’s engagement algorithms.

That’s how I use Twitter. I follow an eclectic mix of artists, journalists, comedians, entrepreneurs and startup influencers, and political thinkers from both sides. When I open my Twitter homepage, I’m exposed to views I agree with and those I do not. It’s a way to take me out of my bubble every once and awhile, and remind me that “the other side” often has good points to make and  deeply held beliefs to defend.

I suppose I could use Facebook to achieve a similar result. But in my experience, this isn’t how that service is used. Facebook is more for private, personal news and achievements; people seem to be acutely self-conscious when posting there. Twitter is more free-form, public, and informal. Twitter starts with the assumption that you’ll follow people you might not know (i.e. famous people); Facebook is based on precisely the opposite premise.

And really, you could achieve this type of thought diversity by reading different books, picking up magazines from “the other side” every once and awhile, etc. But the cost of engagement is lower on Twitter; all you have to do is click the “follow” button.

The myths and scripts of Silicon Valley

The fact that the utopian mantras Silicon Valley tech companies espouse is disingenuous seems to be getting traction lately. A few examples: Franklin Foer’s new book, this article about virtual reality, and Scott Galloway’s The Four.

Now that it’s fashionable to be critical of the big tech companies, I’d like to plug an essay I wrote for grad school last year. I think my framing of the issue is novel and helpful for understanding the allure of Silicon Valley’s utopian myth.

The basic idea is this:
For generations, social revolutions have followed roughly the same script (as in, the script of a movie or play). Revolutions unfold according to:

  • Set cast of characters
  • Established scene
  • Concurrent narrative
  • Script containing a set of actions

Silicon Valley tech companies use a similar script to introduce their new products. Their script roughly follows this outline:

  • First, a new product or service is developed.
  • Next, the breakthrough invention is introduced by its creator. A typical presentation includes the identification of a malevolent oppressor, and the new product is positioned as the revolutionary antidote.
  • Then the inventor describes all the ways in which the new product will change the world, often using egalitarian countercultural ideals such as individual autonomy, harmonious co-existence, transparency, decentralized systems, and personal freedom and liberty.
  • Finally, the product is purchased by the consumer, and the individual’s journey toward freedom and enlightenment begins.

I think there’s a lot to be learned by looking at Silicon Valley tech companies through the lens of social movements. Read the full essay for more, including a bunch of examples from Uber, Facebook, and Nicholas Negroponte’s 1 Laptop per Child.

View story at Medium.com

I miss grad school.

I’ve been in school for two-thirds of my life. And for half of that first third, I was under 4′ tall. I’ve been in school (K-12, undergrad, and grad) for 3/4 of my twenty adult years.

Why so long? Well, there’s this. A brief stint where I fooled myself into believing I could be a competent graphic designer. Plus the four-ish years of grad school, which I attended while working full-time. And those are just the reasons I feel proud admitting. The truth: I attended six colleges, and have two degrees (one bachelor’s and one master’s) to show for it. While at least three of the six schools can be attributed to that, the truth is, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, couldn’t see what I was good at, and wasn’t able to narrow my interests down to just one topic.

Besides, being in school is fun, relatively easy, and predictable, from a time management point-of-view; your life is essentially scheduled out for you in tidy 3-month intervals.

I finished my graduate degree at Penn last May. I’m glad I’m done with school. I get to relax a bit, see my wife more, and focus on ways I can accelerate my career rather than use those few “free” hours in a day to go to class, or do research for a media history term paper at the library. But I do miss certain aspects of grad school.

What I miss about grad school:

  • Grad school forces you to read (at least 200 pages/week). This means you’re processing different theories and thinking about stuff critically every single day.
  • I like having something else going on. While I was in school and working full-time, I was stimulated professionally and academically. I was writing and editing ebooks and white papers by day, while learning things that had nothing to do with my job at night. The two informed each other and gave me a unique perspective on both.
  • Grad school forces you to take in new ides. I probably never would’ve read Hannah Arendt, Edward Bernays, or Ortega y Gasset if it weren’t for that media class.

While you can take classes online or engage friends and co-workers in challenging conversations, it’s not the same. The internet is great at helping you find what you’re already looking for. But if you’re new to a topic, it’s tough to know where to begin. Sure, you can browse Goodreads, Twitter, and a million blogs.

But grad school sets you up with an expert in the field who will guide you through a subject with high-quality and diverse readings that help you develop your attitudes and beliefs towards said topic. The internet tends to set you up with what’s popular and loud. When researching a topic like media, one of the first people you’ll come across online is Marshall McLuhan. But are his theories still relevant? How have his ideas been adopted and adapted over time? Is he full of shit, as my media professor asserted?

Without a guide, you’re likely to think projects like Nicholas Negroponte’s 1 Laptop Per Child, which I’ve written about favorably (and unfavorably) before, is a universal good thing. It’s bringing technology to people who don’t have it, what’s not to like? But if you don’t have access to potable water, what use is a computer?

School also forces you to read the source materials in their respective books and journals, so you don’t have to rely on cherry-picking pop academics like Malcolm Gladwell (more here, here, here, and here.)

Conclusion

While I miss school, I don’t think I’ll be going back any time soon. But I am looking for ways to stay engaged with challenging ideas without the help of a tenured professor. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

Ideas don’t spread like viruses: my grad-school master’s thesis

I just finished my master’s thesis!

I interviewed ten entrepreneurs, academics, and designers and asked them how ideas spread in their industry. I was trying to poke holes in the “ideas spread like viruses” paradigm, which is the primary way people think of ideas spreading these days.

I created an interactive website featuring long-form versions of three of the interviews. Check it out here.

And it’s been getting good press! Philadelphia-based entrepreneur, Christopher Wink (whom I interviewed) had this to say about it in his semi-weekly email newsletter:

Ideas don’t go viral. Or rather, that metaphor isn’t as effective as an “ecosystem,” in which a network needs to be in place and a complex chain of events needs to be followed. That’s from this master’s thesis from a guy named Marc Hummel who reached out and interviewed me last year. He’s now published that thesis online in a remarkably fun and visual way. Go look at it here, if only to see what a thesis can look like.

Check out the site here and let me know what you think!

Thanks.

How snow can total your car when it’s parked on the street

Prius totaled by snow

My car was recently totaled by falling snow during last week’s snowstorm. (It happened in the middle of March, in Philadelphia for the record. Not a time of year known for its blizzards.)

Let’s start at the end.

The little tissue box that could

I was a copywriter at QVC from 2011-2014. I learned way more about Guy Fieri, Rachel Ray, pressure cookers, and cordless vacuums than I thought was humanly possible. I also stocked up on office supplies.

QVC had a pretty generous office-supply policy. Need some pens? Just find what you want in the communal Office Depot catalog, email the item number to the department admin, and receive your order 1–2 weeks later.*

I sat pretty close to the admin who processed the orders, which gave me a front-row view of the orders of my co-workers.

And what I saw opened my eyes

People ordered a lot of stuff. Novelty tape dispensers. Stainless steel staplers. And boxes of tissues. Tissues! I always need tissues! But it never crossed my mind to order them from work… I can provide those just fine thank you very much.

So when it came time to place next month’s order, I ordered a box of tissues. And since I’m a good eco-conscious consumer (and because I wasn’t the one paying), I ordered Seventh Generation tissues. Nothing but the most environmentally friendly tissues for my nose, thank you very much.

Except there was one teeny tiny problem: I ordered a whole case of tissues. 24 boxes of tissues showed up at my desk in a giant box. WHAT AN EMBARRASSMENT. That guy must be abusing the system, my colleagues surely muttered to themselves.

To save face, I immediately distributed boxes of tissues to my preferred co-workers and stashed a bunch under my desk. And I took a box to my car, of course.

Now back to the car

Prius getting towed away

As mentioned above, my car was recently totaled in a snowstorm.

It was a 2011 Toyota Prius in great condition. An avalanche of snow came down from the roof of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital at Seventh and Spruce streets and landed right on my car. Multiple snow bricks rained down on my car during the middle of the night, denting the roof, smashing the windshield, and crushing the whole side of the car.**

So yesterday I removed everything from my car before it was towed to the salvage yard. For those keeping track at home: I still have some tissues left.

Seventh Generation tissues

Important notes:

*I never abused this policy nor did I ever order more than was required as a copywriter.

**Penn’s property insurance is covering the damage no hard feelings ok?