Friday, May 6, 2011

Social Media and Deep Thinking

Earlier this week I received via email a link to Andrew McAfee’s Harvard Business Review blog post Tune Out, Turn Off: A Mantra Needed for Our Times?

The gist of the blog is that social media can be the enemy of deep thinking. True. But it can also be a conduit to deep thinking. Here’s my example.

A tweet offering a free issue of World Literature Today, a publication I’d never heard of, caught my attention. I requested a copy. The cover story of the issue I received (July/August 2010) is on Sherman Alexie, “named one of the New Yorker’s twenty top writers for the twenty-first century” (page 35).

I’d read Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but I had no idea that he is such a prolific and well-known writer – until I read the article.

Because of the article, I checked-out his collection of poems and short stories entitled War Dances. It won the 2010 PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction. In addition to laughing out loud and otherwise enjoying the book, Alexie also inspired deep thinking.

“Back in college, when I was first learning how to edit film – how to construct a scene – my professor, Mr. Baron, said to me, ‘You don’t have to show people using a door to walk into a room. If people are already in the room, the audience will understand that they didn’t crawl through a window or drop from the ceiling or just materialize. The audience understands that a door has been used – the eyes and mind will make the connection – so you can just skip the door.’”

“’Skip the door’ is a good piece of advice – a maxim, if you will – that I’ve applied to my entire editorial career, if not my entire life. To state it in less poetic terms, one would say, ‘An editor must omit all unnecessary information’” (page 5, from the story Breaking and Entering.)

Now for some of you this may seem like elementary advice. But for me, it inspired deep thinking about writing in general and my writing specifically.

There is a risk with social media’s constant stream of information to skim the surface and jump to the next thing. As McAfee writes, “This is potent, addictive stuff, and as Nick points out it does not lend itself to deep thinking and sustained concentration.”

But if we use social media to provide ideas, and then take time to pursue the ideas -- even unplug to think -- then social media can be a conduit to deep thinking. It is for me.

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