Good or bad? Wrong question

by Mathew on March 30, 2007 · 4 comments

Aaron Swartz is an interesting guy. One of the co-founders of Reddit, the Digg-like recommendation engine that was recently bought by the Conde Nast magazine-publishing empire, his blog often has long and thoughtful posts with a refreshingly different perspective. His latest is no exception: In a post entitled “Everything Good is Bad For You,” he writes about what he sees as the downside of Web services like Twitter, and even Reddit itself.

snipshot_d4gj20bm1iv.jpgAfter Reddit became popular, Aaron says, people came up to him and said how much they enjoyed using it, but also talked about how it had destroyed their productivity and consumed their lives. Many people have said the same about YouTube or MySpace or Facebook — and how they spend all their time updating their profile or checking their friend requests or scanning for pictures — and Twitter.com is the latest addition to the family of time-wasting, attention-destroying applications, Aaron suggests. He quotes Cory Doctorow as saying: “It’s like watching someone shovel Mars Bars into his gob while telling you how much he hates chocolate.” Aaron argues that Reddit and Twitter and other tools are the equivalent of chocolate bars.

Peter Caputa at pc4media makes an even stronger argument, saying the tech blogosphere is “just a bunch of surface skimming idiots in a bar w/ no alcohol, and that it’s “mostly Michael Arrington’s fault.” At some point, he says, companies have to “gaze beyond your own navel and come up with a business model; an application that connects people in meaningful ways to accomplish goals beyond instant self-gratification.”

I think Aaron and Peter are both right, in a sense. It’s easy to get consumed by things like Twitter or Facebook or even instant messaging for that matter, and they are a little like junk food — fast, sugar high, illusion of being full, etc. And yet, I can’t agree completely. Why? As a commenter notes on Aaron’s blog, a lot of novels are crap too, and probably just as bad for you (don’t get me started on television). Is reading a blog any worse than reading a potboiler detective novel? I don’t know, but it’s a pretty close race.

In the end, I think a lot of the things we’re seeing are experiments, and no one really knows whether they will actually be useful or not, or what they really *mean* in the larger sense. I do know that things like Twitter and Facebook and MySpace connect people in ways that novels do not — I’m not saying that’s necessarily better. Just saying.

  • http://www.webomatica.com/wordpress/ Webomatica

    What’s better is relative, but personally it is worth noting that newspapers are largely relevant for a day or two, magazines go into depth on a weekly basis, while novels are supposed to last longer and not be so time sensitive. Then there’s the sensational tabloids and all that that entails.

    It seems the web certainly leans more towards the tabloid, time sensitive side because of its digital nature (just can’t imagine reading anything really long let alone a novel on a computer) and the short, instant gratification audience.

  • http://www.markevanstech.com Mark Evans

    Things like Twitter are just digital crack – little real value but certainly good places to waste time if you want something else to do other than watch TV.

  • http://drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    The time-wasting aspect was my first objection to Twitter. Well, that and the idea of telling a bunch of people what I was doing.

    But I’ve found value in it. Not the same value that I find in blogs and blogging, but they’re tools that I consider ‘augmenting’ tools to the larger social media connections.

    Still, I’m easily distracted (as evidenced by the fact that I’m here commenting on your post instead of finishing up Friday-afternoon details), and so I have to really pay attention to how I use them and when.

    I use Reddit but actually prefer del.icio.us (mostly because I used it first), and that I could not live without. It makes my life much, much easier because with one mouse click I can organize pages, sites, blog posts and other material I want to find again. Far from being timewasting, I view it as one of my most valuable tools.

  • Mathew

    I think you’re probably right, Webomatica — that’s a good way to look at it. Or there’s always the crack analogy, which Mark clearly prefers :-)

    And Karoli, I expect that you and I are probably very similar — I’m tempted by Twitter and other tools as well, because of what they make possible. And I’m a big fan of del.icio.us as well, and likely couldn’t live without it.

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