Social, Progress, and the Lazy Brain

Brass Tack Thinking - Social, Progress, and the Lazy BrainBy and large, I think we’re capable of so much more.

I took a sizable breather from writing and doing a lot of participation on social networks over the holiday season to think, to observe, and to lay the groundwork for the early days of SideraWorks. But something happened when I sat down to write again.

I wanted to be challenged. I didn’t want to do the same thing I’d always done. Looking around, I found a couple of things that made me screw up my face in consternation.

Bite-sized Content

The blogs being lauded as “leading” our industry these days are the ones that are adept at the clever analogy or the frequently and arbitrarily curated Top Something list, or most especially the preachy, prescriptive advice that’s packaged as some kind of reality check about where we’re going wrong. The rearview mirror sure makes for easy writing fodder, doesn’t it? Drawing the uncharted maps is a heck of a lot harder.

Digestible content, lessons learned, how-tos and and levity are wonderful things to have in the mix. The problem I’m finding is that our desire to consume something rapidly and without too much effort is becoming a dominant, self-fulfilling cycle.

Simple isn’t the same as easy.

But easy content is what drives clicks, because we can read it, retweet it, and promptly forget it. We can bookmark it, never to come back to it. We don’t have to stop our brains in the middle of thinking about more complex things in order to process or digest a blog post.

Content on the web, especially about social media, has become our brain break. Not the discussions that challenge us to think harder.

It’s not fair to make that a universal statement, and I’ve written plenty of fluff posts myself, so I completely acknowledge the hypocrisy.

There are also some outstanding writers whose posts are gritty, well thought, and often progressive and provocative. They ask the hard questions and don’t shy away from writing things that require two or three reads and some reflection to digest. Their game isn’t tweets or comments, but rather poking things with sticks in order to present new ideas or reframe familiar ones.

For my money, it’s people like Julien Smith, Saul Kaplan, Valeria Maltoni, Mitch Joel, Dave Gray, Matt Ridings (disclosure: my business partner), Edward Boches, Ben Kunz.

If your goal is to be the next clickmeister of the web and get lots of fast and loose eyeballs, that’s totally your prerogative. But as our industry progresses from gawky adolescent to a mature young adult and many professionals are working to demonstrate not only its short term value but its long term viability, there needs to be a cadre of content creators that want to ask messy, crunchy questions instead of writing endless lists.

So I’m thinking about how I can do my part, to keep challenging myself to do better, not just more. I hope more people do, too. There are some brilliant thinkers out there that just need to have the courage to push their comfort zone a little more. Don’t think I don’t see you.

Data Laziness

We’re coming up against this frequently. Just ask Tom Webster.

I applaud our hunger for facts to back up our hypotheses. It’s encouraging that the industry wants accountability for the practices we’ve been building and evolving over the past several years.

But in our haste to prove something - anything – we’ll take almost any data or statistics presented at face value and we’ll even share that data liberally through our love of the almighty infographic, research report, or “study”. We’ll bookmark the hell out of it and put it in every single one of our presentations and pitches. But rarely do we stop and ask ourselves how that information came together.

Where did it come from? How was it gathered? What assumptions were made when it was presented? How were the questions formed, and what kind of bias do they reflect? What information might have been left out, skipped, or even deliberately skewed (ever look at who sponsors a study, for example)? Were those survey responses from fifteen people on Twitter on Friday at midnight, or was it a statistically valid and representative sample? Was someone just presenting data that supports a conclusion they already wanted to make?

It’s okay to question data. It’s healthy to look at things with a critical eye, to refuse to accept something as a fact simply because someone creates a nice graphic and says it’s so. It’s also okay not to know how to evaluate data, and to spend the time to take it bit by bit and learn, or ask someone who does.

Down the road as we seek to provide credibility to all the hard work we’re doing, if we’re all citing a bunch of crappy information, guess how good our conclusions, strategies, and ensuing questions will be? Guess how insightful and discerning we’ll look?

Exactly. Question stuff. It’s healthy.

Oh. But while I’m at that, let me talk about one last thing.

Controversy, Not Debate

We’ve talked about this before, but there is a vast difference between disagreeing, and being disagreeable. 

Yet it’s practically de rigueur to get into some kind of tiff in a public forum, complete with dripping sarcasm, condescension, personal barbs and insults. And we pull up chairs and watch the carnage like a trashy movie.

That doesn’t make us collectively look very smart. And we’ll post endlessly on Facebook about stopping bullies in schools, but we’ll let the trolls take over Twitter or our friend’s Facebook wall, and still proudly share their posts and laud them as some kind of hero who “tells it like it is”.

Our industry needs to question stuff, just like we talked about above. We need to debate issues, bring up complex considerations, clarify what we mean as we define what we do and how we do it.

But don’t forget this:

Sure, you can be polarizing and provoke people to action. That works sometimes, can’t deny that. But I am so hungry for more discussions populated by people who don’t need to leave their ego hanging out of their pants to make a point, or resort to tearing someone else down in order to make themselves look tough or gritty. I’m seeking out the people who love to talk, learn, push, challenge, consider, and actually enjoy doing that with other people without being threatened, defensive, or argumentative just for the sake of it.

The sad part is that I realize the relative futility of writing this into a post, because the people who like to get down and scrabble in the dirt aren’t likely to do any self-reflection because of this much less change how they operate. Instead, perhaps I can hope that one person reading who sees this stuff happening is willing to point it out. Or at the least, refuse to indulge in that stuff in favor of initiating a valuable debate with someone willing to actually have one, or spending their valuable attention on the people who do.

Hey, a girl can hope.

So that’s what’s on my mind as the new year starts, as the new business gets off the ground, and as I’m considering how I’ll create content and participate in discussions that make me a better professional and a better thinker.

Lazy brain sucks. I’m demanding more.

Is that good enough to be a motto for 2012? I’m going with it.

  • Rick Stilwell

    Totally challenged, but I hope I’m one who’s been trying to put some of this into practice already. I have friends in this business and outside who are going through things, who are taking the easy way too often, and it’s biting them in the butt. RTing and all here, but also taking stock of what I’m doing in my own stuff (discipline of steady writing, a calendar to loosely direct, etc).

  • Katherine M. Gordon

    Amen. Well said and your list contained several of my favorite folks. Big, juicy thinkers appear to be an endangered species. We need to all be preservationists.

  • Jason Konopinski

    A timely topic, Amber, and one that has been gnawing away at my brain a lot recently and found its way into a string of recent posts. A bit of lazy brain on my part fractured a good thing, wouldn’t you say? 

  • Evan Hamilton

    Great post, Amber. It’s hard, though! I did my first “5 reasons” post a few months ago and the number of clicks it got was far above any of the more in-depth posts I’ve done. My goal for 2012: figure out how to use those enticing formats to make people actually think. We’ll see if it works. :)

  • Tracey Byrnes

    Great post, Amber – you’ve got a way of delivering the sharp end of the tack that makes me think, reflect and then set out with my determination to do something about it totally refreshed.

    I agree with Evan, it is hard! But in the end, “questioning authority” and “challenging everything” usually results in good things happening…whether it’s better blog posts, sharper analysis skills, more concise strategies and guidance for you/your clients or just better use of your brain all around.And yes, “Lazy brain sucks. I’m demanding more.” is a great motto for 2012. I may even borrow it ;)

  • Susan M Steele

    Excellent post!  I’ve been finding myself drifting lately just consuming a lot of content, without really thinking about it or analyzing it in any way.  It’s that rush-rush-rush of following lots of people on Twitter and reading tons of blogs.

    I’m going to try this year to consume less and produce more — more content that is thoughtful, that invites respectful conversation (even disagreement!), that requires close reading.  I want my blog readers to think, not just to read.

  • rickjmiv

    Amber, thanks for the challenge. I am with you.

  • Schaubj

    Thank you, again, for writing a succinct, honest and chin-pondering post. I am always excited when I see your link in my email because I give myself permission to read it, re-read it, and reflect on your thoughts before I begin my day of eye and brain scanning day.

    Bravo for your curiosity, courage and willingness to write your truth!

  • justinmwhitaker

    Where I see things going is towards this microchunked or bite sized content…blogs are going to morph into being less about the post of the minute, to analysis of the content shared. 

    Think the shift in journalism from reporting to punditry. Now, as always, you have to do the work, and most people aren’t doing that. They are pumping out content with little or no reflection. Which is fine, because the people that do will be the ones getting the speaking engagements, the interviews on cable news, the book deals.So, I guess you have to decide which path you’re going to take. Thanks for the food for thought Amber!

  • Patrick Gant

    “Simple isn’t the same as easy.” So true. Simple is hard. Because when it’s done right, you impart more in less space. Too often, it’s assumed that this is shorthand for “use smaller sentences and microparagraphs everywhere.” Sometimes, this is what’s right. But a good sense of taste and that critical eye for details will demand that facts be given the space they need. Case in point: Clay Shirky’s persuasive blog posts. They’re not short. But they’re as succinct as can be.  

    I’ve been a writer by trade for over 20 years (yes, I’m as shocked by my age as everyone else), and what I have found is that there are a lot of things I can do in less time than ever. But being as simple as *necessary* isn’t one of those things. I still struggle with it.   

    Glad you shared your thoughts on this, Amber.

  • Sean McGinnis

    Dear Amber:

    I had no idea it was possible for me to adore you more than I did yesterday.

    I was wrong.

  • Anonymous

    yes, Yes, YES!! Perhaps we go a step further and consider it necessary to question data – the sources, the collection, study structure and any mathematical analysis of quantitative data. 

    And you’re right. Questioning is difficult – one must be curious and have enough context to ask insightful questions.  Additionally, the benefits to asking questions must outweigh the social / political costs of doing so, so creating a culture where that’s encouraged will go a long way to preserve curiosity and critical thinking within an org.

    I’m glad you raise this issue – thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  • Marjorie Clayman

    Hi Amber,

    This is a tough issue. I’ve argued before (and I still believe it) that for people who are just coming into the online world, offering content that will help them out is still the right thing to do. However, and this is a huge however, the online world is changing so rapidly that a person who has been around for 7 years may no longer be the best person to offer new people advice. The person who started out tweeting when Twitter was still a baby didn’t have to claw his or her way through layers upon layers of cliques and “A-listers” and all that jazz. New people do.

    A lot of people started tweeting and blogging at the same time I did. We’re another layer of social lasagna that people starting now will have to try to break through to get heard. Do I want to write content that makes those folks feel welcome? Absolutely. Do I want to downplay the importance of that? Heck no. After all, it was folks like you who paved the way for me. I want to do the same thing for other folks.

    All of that being said, I think social media as an entity has gotten very self-centered. We’ve lost the big picture. I’ve been trying to step away from the “how to tweet” posts and more towards, “OK, how can we use Twitter to improve the world, for example?” Hopefully it is enough to get people to think about things in new and exciting ways. If not, at least I find it interesting :)

    Go get ‘em!

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  • Usmanlakhani

    Well said and well done. I like your slice and dice approach….in fact you remind me of that other great believer in “quality of work” – robert pirsig.

  • Gemma Went

    Thanks for this Amber. As one with a fair few fluff posts under my belt, I’ve been wondering why my desire to write has disappeared of late. Is it purely because I have no time? Partly that, but partly because sometimes I think ‘really, is it just a load of old bollocks, just like all the other posts out there?’.

    You’re right. We need to question. Really think about it. I just wish I had more time to do that (which is another problem altogether).

    Oh and thanks for the links to the other guys, my reader’s just had an influx of talent.

  • Gene Sasso

    we used to talk a lot about convergence, and confluence and… lots of other “cons” that presumably made more out, enriched communication in around about our digital selves. Turned out, the internet and soc med (too often) merely allowed for / enabled a lot of superficial coincidences. Irony here: I encountered Amber’s wonderful post today, just after reading a google+ communication from Dalai Lama: The longer view; the deeper insight; the more difficult path are being called for. Make a difference. Challenge yourself and others. Read and listen more. Write less. Take the ego out of your ID. Dare to be more than your last tweet…

    Dalai Lama: “In the face of all the challenges we face today, is my optimism about
    the future of humanity idealistic? Perhaps it is. Is it unrealistic?
    Certainly not. To remain indifferent to the challenges we face is
    indefensible. If the goal is noble, whether or not it is realized within
    our lifetime is largely irrelevant. What we must do therefore is to
    strive and persevere and never give up.”

  • Douglas tr0n Soltys

    Simply, thanks. I will do my best to eliminate the lazy brain in my writing in 2012.

  • Anonymous

    I tend to skim through things I read earlier in the day. I actually had to read that slowly. 

  • Kimberly Castleberry

    You call it controversy not debate. I actually don’t find debate a bad thing. Debate can be good and healthy and doesn’t have to resort to name calling. However, when most people think of debates they think of political debates that can be ugly. I guess I was taught a healthy form of debate while in school and really enjoy poking a stick at all angles of a topic for the sheer enjoyment of exploring all sides (and sometimes playing the devils advocate). However, there is a difference between that kind of debate and being argumentative (and spiteful too!) as plenty today are prone to being. It takes the fun out of it.

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  • HotSpot Promotion

    Thanks for a swift kick in the pants.  I think the challenge is to be thought provoking all the time.  If we only blogged once a month, it would be easier, but finding the time to think deeply and blog regularly is where the challenge comes.  I look forward to reading more about your journey here.

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