How Social Media Diminishes Our Biggest Ideas

A man I respect recently sat down with me in front of a big fireplace and gave me some advice: “You’re using Facebook to send up trial balloons for your thinking.  You get a lot of affirmation there, and indicators that your ideas are needed and accepted. But the downside is that the quick dopamine hit of positive reinforcement actually stops you from doing the harder work of writing.”

His remarks hit home.  I had stopped going deeper, and had been cheating myself. Not only by overusing social media, but by sidestepping engagement on topics that I take seriously in my heart.  Topics relating to questions I have actually struggled to answer, to get clear on. Questions that seemed worth answering to me, and seemed to be worth answering for other people.

Ideas take time to bloom.  A problem, pain, challenge or budding idea will nag at me, roll around in my subsconscious, poke its head up every now and then. But  only after one of two conditions are met does it show itself fully.  My ideas form either (1) when I’m alone in an individual, quiet space – like hiking, cooking or  practicing yoga.  It’s then that my percolations turn to ruminations—and transform into the rush of insight  Or, (2) when out exploring and being confronted with new people, facts, ways of being or creating or seeing. At that moment  some lateral brain connection goes into overdrive – the “new thing” in some other domain often has some corollary that reveals a truly innovative look at problem in another area.

To capture these ideas in the moment, I used to carry a slim brown notebook and a .5 mm drawing pen, and take notes. At the end of a day or week I’d review my notebook, type up the things that had value, and toss the rest.  But now that I’m carrying a smart phone, I just compose a long, poetic Facebook post about my ideas—which instantly disappear into the ether.

With these social media posts, I get an almost immediate triple payback. First is the actual joy of writing – of placing the right words in the right order on the page. That in and of itself is a huge delight.   Next comes hitting “post” or “send,” and waiting for engagement to begin.  Third is the dopamine rush as reactions, likes, questions and comments roll in.

Afterward, though, most of these ideas are lost in the social stream, never to be seen again.   There is no context, no artifact or body of work to contain them.  Moreover—and most importantly—they never get fully developed.

I know there will always be a dynamic tension between immediate expression and contemplation.   I’m super busy, and sometimes I feel like hoarded ideas block energy flow – what am I waiting for?  If an idea can help someone, can inspire someone, make someone laugh or make someone think, I should share it right away. It’s not completely impulsive, however.  Before I post, I do some internal checks:  Is this idea helpful to share?  Is it unique? Will it create some delight in the reader?  Is it authentic – do I mean it?   If the answer is yes, I usually go ahead.

Social media is good for things that are fundamentally social: giving public praise, sharing something of beauty, passing on other people’s work, getting support in a time of need, offering support in a time of need, posting opportunities, affirming other people, news commentary, promoting concepts or events. But the depth and shelf life of a tweet or FB post is much shorter than a fully realized print or even blog or article. Strong thoughts become trivialized.  Ultimately the person who loses most from not investigating your best ideas is YOU.

I admit that there may be reasons I have up until now been avoiding doing the real work of writing, other than the addiction to the dopamine hit of the “triple reward.”  For example, there are a lot of risks and pain points in deeply fleshing out a new idea.

The longer pieces that I do take time to research and write are evergreen, and of good quality — but few people see them.  I haven’t promoted my personal writing, so I have a visibility problem with this content.  I don’t get any of the quick rewards that social media offers.  The core satisfaction in these pieces is intrinsic- it comes from answering a complex question and the actual art of the writing.

But this can be discouraging. Sometimes when I’m working on a long form piece, I think: “I’m no Stephen Pinker or Malcolm Gladwell. Why should I think my thoughts have any value? Doesn’t that seem arrogant?  I’m not a professor or a pundit. Who cares about my ideas?” Writing long form requires an extra measure of confidence, and a willingness to stick by my ideas – to stand by what I write.

Then there’s the “inner perfectionist.” While I can be quick and glib in a short-form, fast moving world—where the stakes aren’t high— the print-ready world demands the writing be much more disciplined, much more thought-through.  As the stakes go up, the quality bar goes up- almost to the point of being out of reach.  In the software development world, we say “Perfect is the enemy of done.” And in my writing and ideation it’s not just that; “Perfect” is an ever-escalating bar, a steadily receding target.

This is coupled, of course, with fear of judgment; fear of seeming like an intellectual impostor or poser, and incurring the wrath of the online “hater” culture.

Finally, there is the legitimately hard work of critical thinking.   I’m not talking about the elementary diligence of footnoting and citing and references- I’m talking about the real development and evaluation of ideas. This includes considering things from many angles— especially the opposite points of view.

Fundamentally, what it all comes down to is too much fear and too little effort.

Admitting all of this—that I’m a dork with dumb insecurities and (maybe my worst fear!) a lack of discipline—I feel pretty freaking vulnerable. But at the same time, I am SO EXCITED.

What would it actually take to develop just one of the ten ideas I post to social media every week? What kind of a focused practice of thinking something through (as opposed to blabbing it out) would it take to make this shift?  To hold and sit with things until they had not only poetry and inspiration, but import?   What if I followed through on some of these ideas and didn’t just “birth them, and leaving them at the church door”. What if I reawakened a practice of critical and rigorous thinking?

I don’t know, but I’m ready for the challenge.  My goal is to rethink the way I honor ideas. It won’t be easy, but from now on, ideas that call for more than 140 characters are going to get more… as many as 5,900!

Some ideas—like this one—deserve it.  

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