Does Social Media Make You Dumb? That’s the Wrong Question

Does “social media,” the collection of user-generated content provided through blogs, wikis, podcasts, and the like, make you dumb? It’s a theme that’s been explored by a number of bloggers, spurred by a study of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

At first glance, the answer to the question, if it’s worth addressing at all, is a definite “maybe,” depending on how we define the word “dumb”:

In a week when the mainstream press was focused on Iraq and the debate over immigration, the three leading user-news sites—Reddit, Digg and Del.icio.us—were more focused on stories like the release of Apple’s new iphone and that Nintendo had surpassed Sony in net worth, according to the study.

Ask those following these sites a question about the iPhone and you’ll receive a relatively well informed response. Ask them about immigration and you might get a blank stare. No, they’re likely not dumb, just narrowly focused on what they like.

The question I submit about “social media” — put in quotes because I don’t agree with the way it’s defined or used in this case (e.g., a newspaper columnist could have a blog, is this “social media,” user-generated content or simply a publishing tool) — is whether it creates the iPod effect. Does “social media” lock us into a personalized echo chamber, where we are surrounded only with the opinions, ideas, news, music, and an onslaught of other media that we agree with and prefer?

It doesn’t have to but it surely encourages this trend in such a way that is stronger than traditional mainstream media. “Social media” empowers filtering, time shifting, mobility, and dozens of other means of individualization and personalization.

Like many other challenges with technology, the solution may not be found in the technology itself but rather in the way we use it. Are we willing to allow the convenience of “social media” box us into a homogenous world full of people we like and opinions that are the same as ours? Should that occur, perhaps the original question stands as valid and the answer becomes glaringly apparent.

[via Ryan Moede]