Has social media destroyed public discourse?


I came of age at a fortuitous time. In high school, the Apple ][ computers arrived and were in a lab that you could take a course. I learned a lot about microcomputers there, and soon saved my paper route money to buy my own (not an Apple, way too expensive, I went the Atari route – better games). I learned a lot about that system, I learned to program in basic, and rudimentary assembly language, I learned a lot of the concepts about computing that serve me well today.

Public Discourse appears to be dying in the social media age
Public Discourse appears to be dying in the social media age

After a couple of years, I got immersed into the BBS community. With the simple addition of a modem, a piece of hardware that connected you via telephone to other computers, you could share files, and trade stories. I enjoyed participating so much that I soon took the plunge and began running a BBS of my own. I made a lot of friends, “chatted” with people from across the country, and even a few international ones.

Part of the charm of the BBS culture were the message forums. These often led to animated discussions back and forth between users (and myself of course). I graduated from that to USENET, UUCP, and the various discussion venues. For a long time I hung out at rec.motorcycles.dirt where off road motorcyclists hung out, and planned excursions.

From there came the special interest forums. Truly a child of the internet age, there is a plethora of topics and communities that have evolved. From auto detailing, to dedicated forums for specific video games, to Japanese Anime collectors, there are sure to be something that strikes your fancy.

Then came Twitter. Suddenly conversations were limited to 140 characters (the size of an SMS text message). Instead of commenting on a blog post that you agree with, or dispute, it is now the norm to just “tweet” it, and leave the discussion in the Twitter universe, hopelessly buried in the noise. Blog posts that 3 or 4 years ago would have elicited a dozen or more responses, now have no activity.

I believe that this is a shame. The value of the intercourse of ideas, a foundation of intellectual pursuit, has been reduced to the re-tweet.

I for one make a point of commenting often when I come across a topic that piques my curiosity. But it appears that the ephemeral vehicle that is the 140 character tweet is destroying the practice of public discourse.

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By geoffand


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March 2013

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