Twitter, Instagram, Vine: Fast track to nitwit

Twitter, Instagram, Vine: Fast track to nitwit

Summary: There are those who would call our social media streams a new form of consciousness and the future of computing. I would suggest they spend more time interacting with actual human beings.



I work in a profession that is notorious for employing people that (for lack of a more politically correct way of phrasing it) are woefully deficient in the art of human interaction.

Technologists, programmers and engineers are usually introverts. Sure, you get the occasional "social" type that can bridge the gap or interface between pure engineer and business/sales, but for the most part, a lot of us lack the essential social skills that just plain "normal" people posess. 

Over the decades we have been called "dorks", or "nerds" or "geeks", or just plain socially awkward. There are now better, more clinical ways to describe some of us.

Research in the last several years has shown that there is a link between the tech disciplines and what is now generally referred to as the Autism Spectrum, which encompasses a wide range of pervasive and neurodevelopmental conditions.

One of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) that has been getting a lot of attention in the tech sector and the media lately is what used to be clinically diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome.

You all know the signs of Asperger's when you see it because the many of the very brightest and most talented of us seem to have it.

Albert Einstein, for example, was said to have exhibited many of the telltale signs of the condition, long before the clinical diagnosis was formalized by the medical community.

Sheldon Cooper on CBS's The Big Bang Theory may not have "come out" with an Asperger diagnosis, and while the character's creators have all but denied it, he might as well be the Autism Spectrum's poster child.

Those of us who work in technology all know at least one Sheldon Cooper. Some of us have them as family members, as children, and as spouses.

While not considered by most clinicians to be residing on the Autism Spectrum itself, Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a comorbid condition (one of several, which includes anxiety and depression) that is frequently part of an overall ASD diagnosis and may have genetic links to conditions that reside on the Autism Spectrum. 

At the age of 40 I was formally diagnosed with Attention Defecit Disorder. This wasn't so much a surprise to me but a confirmation after many years of suspecting I was different from other people that my brain simply functions a certain way.

It was a relief, really, because as I was getting older, I became more and more frustrated with myself in the way I was interacting with people and I didn't know why I was behaving a certain way or understand how to deal with it. 

Those of us that have ADD see it as a both a curse and also a gift. While many of us find difficulty in multitasking and staying organized -- something that can actually cripple certain career paths for those of us in tech -- a side effect of ADD is "hyperfocus" which is a condition in which one puts all of their attention into completing a single task.

I'm able to harness my hyperfocus by creative outlets in my writing and problem solving skills that I leverage at work.

Unfortunately, it also makes me the butt of jokes when I'm out socializing with my wife, friends and colleagues.

Also Read: Have we all become a bunch of anxious, sleep-deprived irritable stress-heads?

Conversations that happen around me in groups are simply background noise, even though my brain is actively processing it (along with a million other things) in my subconscious.

It's not uncommon for me to regurgitate something someone else has said minutes before, believing that the thought or the idea was my own, and then being told I was simply repeating something.

This is the curse of having a short attention span and experiencing life in bursts. I would never wish this even on my worst enemy.

The only way you can defeat this condition is simply to spend more time with people and less in front of your computers and tech toys. You will never "cure" ADD or something much more serious like Asperger's, but by forcing youself into social situations the more you get better at "faking" normalcy, and you learn to compensate for your problems and use your weaknesses as strengths.

Which gets us into the actual subject matter of this article.

Like many of you, I utilize any number of social media tools. When you are a writer, having the technology to reach out to your readership and to engage them directly is a powerful one.

But as I use these tools more and more, the more I feel they should be used in moderation, particularly if you have autism spectrum tendancies, because they absolutely will bring out the worst aspects of your personality if you are psychologically or neurologically inclined in that direction.

And while I have absolutely no scientific data to back this up whatsoever, I believe that their heavy use fosters a society that is short on attention and devalues long-form discourse, even for those that do not have Autism Spectrum conditions.

In short, our obsession with what some people are calling the "Lifestream" is leading us towards an entire society of Technology Augmented Autism.

In a fit of irony, I summed this up very recently in a Tweet:


This was precipitated after an evening I had spent messing around with Vine, Twitter's latest "micro-vlogging" service for the iPhone.

After shooting a few test videos, and realizing I had wasted so much precious time trying to create a profound video message in a six second burst, it dawned on me: We're spending too much freaking time with these microblogging or "stream" services, and not enough with other human beings and appreciating art in what I refer to as "long form".

You know, stuff like... Books. Articles longer than 300 words. Film. Actual photography. Face to face conversation. Hell, even phone calls and email. Human empathy.

I'm not sure why we are becoming obsessed with trying to express ourselves in tiny amounts.

You cannot have a meaningful conversation with another human being on Twitter. You cannot produce photographic art of any value within the limitations of a service like Instagram, and you sure as hell cannot produce film as art with Vine.

Also Read: Streaming is replacing the Web as we know it

If services like these are "Lifestreams", what quality of "life" are we really talking about, anyway? How is any of this an expression of culture? It's certainly not anything that has duration or long term value.

In 100 years, will people be thinking Tweets, Instagram photos and Vine bursts are works of art and are worth preservation? No, because they are considered to be completely disposable. They are forgotten just as quickly as they go viral.

And I can assure you, unlike printed media, the record of these things are unlikely to exist in a century hence unless active measures are taken to preserve them.

I will grant it that as a communications medium for bandwidth constrained environments, and for the rapid dissemination of important news developments, these services have a use. Heck, even I use Twitter and Instagram. A lot.

But they should never be considered a replacement for traditional forms of communication, and we need to balance the use of these tools with real art, real films, large format digital photography, real talking, listening to real music, having real sex, eating real food and engaging with real humans.

And savoring our moments. Not disposing of them and waiting for the next one to "stream". Because if it has to be done in 140 characters, 612 pixels or lasts six seconds long -- you're doing it wrong.

Is the "Lifestream" the future of human interaction or simply technology augmented autism? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Health, Social Enterprise


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I was thinking the other day that I'm inherently terse

    but then, I like to call it "concise".
    Mac Hosehead
    • I was thinking the other day I'm inherently lazy

      but then I realised I'm just incredibly efficient
      Da Womby
      • please follow smartvhf on instagram

        please follow smartvhf on instagram
        Ssara Cool
  • I agree.

    "I'm not sure why we are becoming obsessed with trying to express ourselves in tiny amounts. "

    Neither do I. In fact, this is why I barely use my Twitter at all. I don't think it's good, right, or healthy to think in short snippets. There is no wisdom in it, no depth of understanding of the complex systems in our lives, be they social, technical, economic, or governmental. Our decisions will be shallow and shortsighted if we continue down this path.

    A future that lacks depth, detail, and nuance is a future I don't want.
    • Those are philosophical POVs worthy of debate, CobraA1

      I refer to your opinions that "… I don't think it's good, right, or healthy to think in short snippets. There is no wisdom in it … "

      It is my opinion that speaking (or writing) in concise prose is a desirable trait. Certainly my corporate training and experience honed that skill in relaying important observations and opinions to my superiors either thru text messages or by the spoken word.

      In fact, for the longest time, I have always associated the Twitter 140 character communications with workplace "office banter". Both serve about the same purpose and both last about the same length of time.

      The main point of Jason's article (and your comments, CobraA1) is that confining one's spoken or written communications to 140 character streams is a detriment to human interactions and I agree with that point of view.

      A somewhat recent social networking development that Jason touched upon, the six second video snippet - or Vine's micro video blogging service - deserves more time before a consensus can be established as to it's social relevance.

      Since I "dabble" in home video creation, the art of the "quick video cuts" is an important one to master. (Just as an aside, anyone familiar with Apple's iMovie "Hollywood Trailer" productions understands the value of six second video segments.)

      Again, using the "six second" quick cut video techniques exclusively would prove "undesirable" - for obvious reasons. Like everything else, I feel the Vine six second video communication form will have it's place in our society.

      There is another new form of social network communications that Facebook has just introduced. It is the audio message stream option where one can compose and send a recorded audio message in the place of a text message. I've used that method of communication but I have found that it is much easier to "text chat" than it is to "audio chat". If I really wanted to "audio chat" the right way, I use the phone for a two way conversation.

      But for someone, and for lack of a better analogy, wishing to compose an "audio Tweet", I find nothing wrong about engaging in that form of social interaction. In fact, composing an "audio Tweet" is far easier than composing a "video tweet". But once a person get's the hang of doing a "Vine type micro video blogging", it could become as popular as texting was to this past generation of humans.
      • TL; DR

        • Good comment

          I got a chuckle reading it.
      • Do you have the "concise" version of that?

        n t
      • I applaude this article. Its a breakthough peice in some ways.

        Its not entirely difficult how the current fad of micro speaking has evolved and found an audience.

        Here is an absolutely prime example of how this practical menace has found a foothold in our society.

        For years, up and until this very day I have had to contend with the so called "Job interview, employment resume experts". These wonderful individuals have prodded us for years into accepting what would be a very unfortunate reality; that those who interview persons for employment and review resumes/CV's for prospective new employees have little time or interest in taking a serious look at ones resume or CV and that a detailed resume will be of little use if it cant create that big bang impression within the first paragraph/section or two. Likewise of course for any introductory letters from prospective recruits.

        This all comes from studies that show that those in positions to hire are busy people and have no time for details and such. And of course its not that such studies have no merit, its that its a sad reality that those studies are based on some facts that create a situation in many modern businesses where the "time is money" dogma has been taken to an almost ultimate status of importance.

        Its these kinds of realities and studies that give birth to a realization that there is a built in group of persons who may never use an online blogging type of service if they believe that in order to say something of significance it may take something slightly more than "insignificant" time and thinking. These studies and accepted viewpoints that people have little to no time to say or read much at once may find it very attractive to find an online micro blogging service that restricts all to absolutely minimal expression of their thoughts. In fact it only encourages people to ever increase their interest in speaking their mind in as few words as possible. While that certainly is not an unusable or pointless ability to learn, its hardly a skill that's so worth while to make it a good thing that it can lead to a comparatively almost exclusive interest in expressing oneself in a minimalistic way. Its not generally a good thing.

        In fact, its not hard to see that many much better qualified and workplace adaptable and friendly people may find themselves properly employed for example, if those people in a position to hire found out they need to slow down and think in much larger terms than the tiny bits and pieces we have been legitimizing by telling them we know they don't read and think about resumes thoroughly enough. While "snap decision making and thinking" has its place its hardly a great answer to improving human existence, or even a companies bottom line.

        And here we read a truly amazing article about how there are at least a noticeable number of persons with ADD type issues, showing that many popular internet services that have them believe that's its perfectly great to fall into "Internet Approved" micro thinking, writing, and perhaps in the end decision making is a good and popular way to do things.

        The fact of the matter is that the major reason why these kinds of micro blogging are as successful as they are is that not only does it encourage those with ADD type issues to further advance behavior that requires a minimal attention span with no interpersonal social interaction, it puts the brightest and dullest on a much more level playing field when they are ALL restricted in ways that force them to provide minimalistic content. Your lack of ability to make a logical point or more forceful argument or properly address an issue or situation becomes less apparent in many cases and instead all too often blunt and almost ignorant thoughts can rule the day on some issues referred to on micro blogging sites.

        The fact is, we would all be somewhat, if not significantly better off if it became known that despite our proclivities to demand so much from our workers and others in general that they have little to no time to spare to speak or write a truly intelligent sentence. We have come to accept the minimalistic, relatively unintelligent, speaking, writing, reading and assessment there of, of so much that's in the public forum these days its already obvious in so many ways that its done ourselves, the public in general a disservice.

        And perhaps for those with ADD type issues, its provided a poor excuse to think that there is no good reason to expand their horizons because nobody does much these days.

        Great article with some very interesting points.
    • AMEN! - Well Said and I agree - Twitter

      is just about useless, and thankfully a lot of people are starting to realize that. BUT I give it one benefit. I get my newsfeeds from it and links. Outside of that - it is pretty much useless.
  • Really??

    Um Autism Spectrum does not include ADD/ADHD.

    In fact, the medications most prescribed for ADD/ADHD are often not suitable for AS. (1)

    The person I know best with Aspergers has little trouble with books or long articles. No trouble whatsoever. In fact, he is drawn to them like a moth to a flame. His fundamental issue of not intuitively understanding the intentions and motivation of others, and not being able to use that to guide his interactions is quite different than ADD/ADHD.

    Anyway, I do appreciate your mentioning it Perlow, but I am not sure that lumping ADD/ADHD in with ASD is beneficial to understanding especially in cases where medication is needed to treat the ADD/ADHD [note: I am not in favor of medicating people by the way, but only saying some people may feel that is best]

    (1) For instance see,
    • Comorbitity

      ADD and ADHD are frequently part of ASD diagnoses and may be genetically linked.
      • Hadn't seen that.

        Comorbitity sure.

        Anyway, you have to ask yourself how human became intelligent. The genetic link as shown in these recent studies seems to be mutations. Perhaps life is a little bit of a lottery and some of us mutate to be like Einstein and some of use mutate to be seriously autistic or crazy and most of us stay like our parents.

        As for a simple disease model of ASD, I have seen too many really intelligent people on the spectrum, like you say, to really wonder if it isn't part of who we are as human beings as opposed to being something like cancer which while providing us inspirational stories about survivors - isn't changing our intelligence.
      • Don't people with ASD

        have incredible levels of focus?

        I don't think I fit into either, but I've always had trouble changing the subject. Once my mind has chosen a subject interrupting me is very difficult. Even when I'm looking at you and trying to listen, my mind is still focused on what it was doing before.
  • you keep saying 'we'

    but it really you.
    you, Jason, have too much free time on your hands, so that you have a hard time making use of it.
    Come on, get some kids, it will cure most of your problems by taking away all that free time.
    Stop whining, get off the couch - there is life out there.
  • I've long considered many of the users and viewers of those a nitwits.

    Personally, I've always felt that in stead of 'tweets', twitter postings should be called 'twits', as that's what many of the people who send, and read them are, just like I think it should be 'fair game' to shoot Paparazzi.
    I've long been an IT geek, well before I ever went to college, and that was many, many years ago. I prefer even my online contact to be direct and personalized. Honestly, you, and the 99.9% of the other people out there who use twitter and such to keep a deluge of minutiae about your life flowing.. Well, you're just not that interesting. Unless I personally know you, I really don't care. Same about actors, singers, or what have you. You have a life, live it. don't take half of it telling the world about it. Most don't care. Same with hollywood or music stars. I don't read the gossips rags, I don't care when so/so's birthday is. It's all noise. I don't use Twitter, at all. I don't use Instagram. Never heard of Vine, and I basically nuked my Facebook account years ago.

    I despise 'txt-speak' and the overall 'l33t' crap for anything other than texting. And with full-keyboards (even if virtual) out there, there's no need for it anyway.
    • And your point is?

      So your post boiled down is that you don't like FB, Twitter and detest those who use such media. Okay here's a mind blower for you - a blog or talkback like... well, this one... is also a form of social media. So does that mean you are going to nuke your ZDNet account? Because personally I don't find you very interesting either and while I could not care less if you use it or nuke it my preference would be for the latter.
  • yes

    Well said. I find myself not communicating as much when I spend too much time trying to communicate with technology.
  • I Agree/Disagree

    Jason, I believe all these technologies inclined to burst communication are not meant to be our main media of human interaction... I think that we must use them to augment our reality, not make them our reality. The social tools are meant to help us get social - going out with our friends,etc, not the other way.
  • You wanted proof for your words

    "And while I have absolutely no scientific data to back this up whatsoever, I believe that their heavy use fosters a society that is short on attention and devalues long-form discourse, even for those that do not have Autism Spectrum conditions."

    The fact that you have no scientific data to back this up is what I find fascinating about your article. Your realization based on your own observations means that we, as a society, are starting to have enough experience to start to observe patterns of its affect on us.

    However, you might appreciate some proof, so let me point you to it:

    It's a book, called iDisorder. In my opinion is not an easy read precisely because it reads line a scientific study with loads and loads of case studies. However, if you can tolerate that, the actual substance of the books is simply fascinating and is very much in line with what you are observing.

    Another great book is "The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains":