Is Twitter Frying Our Brains?

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, thinks so. In the Sunday magazine section, he writes a rare bylined article entitled: “The Twitter Trap.”

His main premise: “Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and ‘Real Housewives.’ But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.”

Why So Negative?

He knows he will get “blowback” but I admire him for going on record with what a lot of people are thinking.  First, where I stand.  Social media is gobbling up a lot of people’s time. Remember, it’s still so new. We’re all learning how to use it so that it works for us as individuals – such as connecting on Facebook with far-away friends and relatives or looking for a job on LinkedIn. So, in my mind the jury is still out on its long-term effects on our brains.

Where I take exception to Keller is that he devotes his column almost exclusively to the negative aspects – “Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans…why remember what you can look up in seconds?” he asks.

Social Media Spurs Innovation

I predict that 2011 is the year that companies will jump into social media with both feet. Those on the sidelines will find they need to catch up to the early adopters. Enlightened companies such as IBM have an army of employees writing blogs under the IBM imprimatur “IBMers’ blogs: A menu of expertise and insight from a passionate crowd”  – with the links to dozens of employee bloggers. Note the words “expertise and insight.” By unleashing their employees the company has an army of brand advocates reporting on IBM’s newest innovations.

The web has revolutionized customer service. At Comcast’s Twitter account @comcastcares customers can get their complaints taken care of by a team of Comcast employees, such as Bill Gerth, “also known as @comcastbill. We are here to Make it Right for our customers.” He’s posted some 74,000 tweets.

Web-based Communities

The internet has enabled many companies to form communities of employees from around the globe  – focused on innovation, problem solving and client service. In the past, if an engineer in the U.S. needed an expert to help solve a sticky problem, it’s doubtful he would know the very person he wanted works in the Hong Kong office. The web has changed that. We can even have face-to-face communications via Skype, making the connection personal.

I won’t even go into how Twitter is forming communities that are forcing radical changes on governments around the world. You’ve read all about that.

So, Bill Keller, while I appreciate your frustration with a lot of the dreck that passes as discourse on social networks, the good far outweighs the bad. We don’t need to memorize books like they did in the olden days. After we take a minute to find what we need in a web search, we can take the time we would have devoted to memorization to reflect on new ideas that will make things easier, cheaper, faster and maybe even earn some money.


Leave a Reply


  1. As Bill made an extensive list of cons against modern day’s communication and his case is reasonable, it is annoying, but in the end I have to support your conclusion, Jeannette, and can only add: it’s a free world and, with information more available and accessible than ever, one can take whatever one likes. I would even argue that one changes into something what one wants to become; meaning by using social media networks, etc., one can still endorse creativeness by making thoughtful selection, by joining challenging discussions, and dropping useless ones, by helping solving someone’s problems pro bono, verifying one’s own solutions in the forum, etc. None of this has ever been easier. Lots of benefits one can enjoy, and yes, there is a trap, but luckily, can be easily avoided. It’s our choice!

  2. Interacting on Twitter, Facebook and a number of other community based or social networking sites is doing more than frying our brains. It’s making some people unhappy! I have at least one friend a week that takes what I affectionately call the Facebook Hiatus. I don’t see as many followers saying I am going offline from Twitter. That’s probably because 70% of tweets go unread. I can’t remember where I read that latter stat, but I believe it. If I am away from my Twitter for a day or two, no harm, no foul. But from my Facebook profile and page, I just have to check it every 2-3 hours while I am awake. Not sure why. Sometimes is dependency makes me anxious and I have to unplug. Feels good to unplug every now and then. Like the old saying goes, if too much television rots your brains, what does too much social media do to you?

  3. Thanks for the comments. Yes, we can choose how much time to spend on social media like Twitter and Facebook, but it can be addictive, leading to fried brains!

  4. Thanks, Sherryl, for your comment. Letting go of some connections, and not replying to every tweet, may be part of the answer. But it seems a little rude if someone writes and you don’t respond, or you drop out of a discussion you started. No easy answers.

  5. I think like anything new it takes time to settle down and work out what is the best platforms to use and how to use them. A year ago there were a number of articles written on the best way to use Twitter for example. These days many of these have changed.

  6. I must admit, I spend a lot of time on social media…LinkedIn and Twitter during the day (although I confess I still don’t have the hang of Twitter and have not yet found out how it can help me) and at night checking in with my friends and family through Facebook. It can be ‘addicting’ for sure!