There is a sort of elitism that attaches itself to every kind of media. TV is an opiate of the masses — unless you watch the sort of prestige stuff that’s well-reviewed in The New Yorker. There’s a version of that for social media, too. Most people are wasting time, the thinking goes, but I’m using it for important stuff. Contrast that with this bit from Tyler Cowen, part of his predictions for the next 20 years:
Social media has become a kind of opiate of the intellectual class. So, grandparents use social media to track what their grandkids are doing — that’s nice and wonderful. But people who keep on refreshing Twitter for the latest developments in the Mueller investigation — frankly, I think it’s a big waste of time. I think there has been great wrongdoing. I fully support what Mueller is up to. But, at the end of the day, following it moment-to-moment is a kind of trap.
This is almost the opposite view. The everyday usage of social media might actually be good for you, whereas the intellectualized version of it may be terrible!
Now, I don’t think either half of that view is quite right. If most people were using social media well and its ill effects were just a problem for intellectuals, you wouldn’t see the broader evidence that it’s making people less happy.
Moreover, I suspect Cowen would agree that there is an even more intellectualized way of using social media that can be quite good for you: using it to become a wiser and more productive consumer of information, in the spirit of Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy. For instance, try redoing your Twitter feed to follow mostly academics — not just the ones who double as public intellectuals — and watch how things change.
So, there are better and worse ways of using social media — that much is obvious. What I like about Cowen’s line is that it reminds us that intellectuals and journalists aren’t immune from tremendously unproductive social media habits. If they want to get more from social media, they ought to rethink what they’re using it for.
But when you step back and do that rethinking, I suspect it still leads you to less social media overall. Yes, redoing your Twitter feed might help. But at that point why not spend more time on Coursera or listening to podcasts? Why not go back to your RSS reader and follow dozens of great blogs? Why not invent some other kind of internet/media product entirely? The more you think about what you like best about social media, the more you remember the other great stuff the rest of the internet can do for you.