Saturday, September 03, 2022

Social Media is Making Me a Worse Reader

I have realized in the last few days that social media – especially but not only Twitter – has made me a worse reader.

I mean this in a specific way.

For me at least, this is not about, say, social media use monopolizing time that I would otherwise use to read books, or about social media-induced fragmentation of my practices of attention making it harder for me in general to read longform content.

I know both of those things happen to some people, but they are not what I'm talking about here.

The way that it is making me a worse reader is related in part, I think, to what I try to get out of my use of social media, particularly Twitter.

That is, I use it as a tool for curation and discovery. The range of people that I follow helps me stay informed about things that I want to stay informed about, and it helps me find content published in a wide range of places online about topics I'm interested in.

Now, it has become increasingly clear over the last half-dozen years or more that social media platforms, through their algorithms and the mechanics of their operation, organize our attention, our experiences, and our senses of the world in powerful, often troubling, ways.

(I found Richard Seymour's *The Twittering Machine* to be one fascinating and useful source for thinking about this, but I'm sure there are lots of others out there.)

In some ways, Twitter – maybe despite, maybe because of the ways it tries to hack our brains, monopolize our attention, and turn us into both market and product – is a decent tool for curation and discovery. There's a lot of noise, but enough signal mixed in that I keep using it.

But Twitter also has a fast and relentless rhythm to it. The characteristic brevity of tweets, the way the feed works, even the impulse to limit how long you spend using it while maximizing the amount of gold you find amid the inescapable dross all drive it.

As well, there is Seymour's insight that social media is less about pushing us to read (view, listen to) content than about pushing us to click, swipe, write, publish, or otherwise produce outputs that can further drive both platforms and the accumulation of capital.

And personally, I tend to use Twitter at times of day when I'm tired, which means I have less energy to resist the logic of the platform in how I use it – it is possible, at least in limited ways, to use social media platforms against the grain, but it takes effort.

So on Twitter, I certainly do come across links to pieces of writing (or video or audio, but most often writing) that interest me.

But even though finding those pieces in order to read them is pretty much why I use Twitter, the rhythm of the platform means that far more than I would like, I either don't actually read what I find, or I read it quickly and don't really take the time to digest it.

Even worse, I am more likely to be interested in things that are longer, more thoughtful, and more challenging. But when I encounter them, it is precisely those kinds of articles that I am less likely to read at all or to read in ways that do not do them justice.

Now, to be clear, I don't "like" or retweet or otherwise post things that I haven't read. The seemingly ubiquitous practice of circulating without engaging really irritates me, and I don't do it.

But what this means is that while I have found a way to nominally make Twitter work for me, i.e. as a discovery and curation tool, what I actually do with what I find is, not entirely but much more than I'd like, tailored to the platform's logic rather than my needs/desires.

That is – again not all the time but more often than I'd like – the platform's logic and rhythm means I either don't read what I've found, or I read it shallowly.

And that kind of shallow reading is fine when it's, say, a news article – you can still learn the kinds of facts that such articles are there to convey.

But when it is something that is more about ideas, especially new-to-me or challenging ideas, or that is worth reading as an example of writing craft, shallow reading verges on pointless, because you're not spending the time with it to take up what it has to offer.

I *can* read with deeper engagement, of course, and I regularly do when I'm reading books. But social media has made me a worse reader when it comes to online articles.

Unfortunately, I don't have a clear sense yet of what I want to do about this.

I realized it in the context of a larger critical examination of (dare I say, existential crisis about) how my work life as a whole has been organized in recent years, so there are a lot of moving parts to consider, and I need to think about it more.

All I know is that when I encounter the interview with the dying radical author, the thoughtful piece by the migrant justice organizer I really admire, the deep dive on nefarious actions by Canada's national security state, the novel-to-me meditation on the medium of film, etc., I want not only to be able to read them, but to be able to read them with the engagement and care and reflection they deserve. Otherwise, why bother?


Anonymous said...


Lorne said...

An excellent, thought-provoking post. The digital world clearly invites a more cursory examinations of content. I was just saying to my wife this morning, as I read the print edition of The Saturday Toronto Star, that if one relied solely on social media, one would only be met with articles that confirm, not challenge, their world world. and in-depth articles would be glossed over.

I get a much greater sense of the world from being a regular newspaper reader.

the salamander said...

I wont read this post again .. thanks ..

Twitter is ‘rough n tumble’ & custom shaped by Algorithms..
yes.. for you me.. and sundry..

Who really wants to see/read Poilievre’s political pimps feed ?
IE one shaped for Jenni Byrne.. or some junior datawank
or one shaped for his dear wife Anaida, landlord to Michael Cooper
but in thrall to Michael Cooper - her employer ..
who purportedly is resident of Alberta ..
and an elected ‘Public Servant’ ..
but she lives in Carleton Riding.. Ottawa

Good try there ..