I don’t particularly enjoy traditional social settings like bars or parties. Partly this is because I can’t hear very well, especially when there’s a lot of background noise. But probably a more important reason is that I feel like a lot of the conversation that happens in these settings isn’t productive. Not productive in the sense of making me money or advancing civilization, but in the sense of making us understand each other better on a more than superficial level, or in the sense of enlightening us or engaging us to some significant depth. From my perspective, most of the idle chatter that happens in these settings are basically overhead. Not all of it. And I understand that some people prefer superficial conversation, so it’s not overhead for them. Some people enjoy eating bread by itself; to me, bread is for holding meat.
I prefer and seek depth in my endeavors. I’m starting to think it’s my overarching project. I think it’s what all my various little projects have been about: Breakfast, the various incarnations of Since the War, the party chat, NMBC, EMDN, and now EMSN.[^1] It’s also what motivates my thoughts on social networks, browsers, etc, as well as on user interfaces and the rationality engine.
Depth is my project.
And since this blog is basically a brain-dump, and that’s what I spend most of my idle cycles on, I guess that’s mostly what this blog’s about.
There are two separate vectors of depth that I think about:
Depth of experience. I refer to the immersive experience, in which you are so engrossed in your artifact that when you are interrupted, it’s as disorienting as waking up in an unfamiliar place from a vivid dream. This experience can come in many forms. For me, it’s usually reading (novels, essays, and long form journalism), but often films and sometimes video games (Ico comes to mind).
Depth of connection. Conversations can be engrossing, too. They can also enlighten (sometimes mutually), expand (in the transitive sense of the word), and increase intimacy. This is true both off- and online. And online, the internet equivalent of idle chatter is shallow interaction–snarky comments, likes, pithy aphorisms, how-to articles, etc. (This is not to say that shallow interaction has no value. It does[^2], but again, I like meat.)
There are oceans to explore, but we stay in puddles.
The problem of the proliferation of shallow communication is more fundamental than the implementation of currently popular social networks. I’m starting to see it as three parts:
Human nature. People have short attention spans and are easily distracted. They are also incredibly susceptible to Skinnerian novelty-seeking behavior. (Also, many or most people genuinely prefer shallow breadth, or even just shallows.)
The architecture of the web. The web is made of hyperlinks. Any given page generally points to many other pages. If you imagine that the goal of reading a web page is to read it all the way through from start to finish, the page itself fights you by giving you many orthogonal avenues along the way.[^3]
Currently viable online business models. Web pages make money by distracting you, either by getting you to look at an ad or by getting you to click on one. As long as advertising drives the web, and advertisers measure success in page views, this isn’t going to change.
Look forward, not backward; upward, not forward.
There are huge, Lovecraftian commercial forces at work, with a vested interest in keeping our attention spans short, and our feedback loops shorter. These forces feed on ‘eyeballs’ and ‘clicks’ and measure us in aggregate. It seems unlikely that we can change that.
But there are countervailing forces. Some commercial ones, like Flickr and Stack Exchange,[^4] harness the power of communities to dig deep mines of richness on the web. Others are non-commercial, like Wikipedia. Many come from people scratching their own itches: Readability and Instapaper, made by and for people who wanted to be able to read web writing without the now conventional distractions of modern web design; any number of anti-procrastination applications that block your internet connection for specified periods of time to improve task focus; and services like longform.org and delivereads that encourage deep reading of long form journalism. Physical devices that enable depth are becoming wildly popular: the Kindle is an obvious example, as is the iPad, which, despite my misgivings, enables an unprecedented immersion experience by presenting an intuitive and emotionally satisfying interaction model. And of course there are others thinking about the same problems.
We are all naturally insular to some degree. We are all anxious, novelty-seeking apes. We are buoyant, in the working metaphor. And there are two ways to dive deeper: learn to hold our breath longer; and make tools to so we don’t have to. Can’t hurt to try both.
[^1]: I’m not trying to take all the credit for all of these, just explicating my underlying reason for participating.
[^2]: I find the concept of “ambient intimacy” to be an interesting one.
[^3]: There’s a lot more here, like the fact that the internet is basically a custom tailored novelty aggregator and interruption machine, but others have covered this exhaustively, I think. Probably the canonical example is Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
[^4]: Probably not deep on either of the vectors I’ve enumerated, but Stack Exchange was built as a direct response to the shallow cesspool of technical knowledge that was available on the internet. It maybe represents a third vector: depth of information?