My faith in adult society got a little boost the past weekend when I read that a growing number of people are becoming disillusioned with Facebook and are discontinuing their affiliation, or at least their frequent visits, to the site.
Not that Facebook, or its conceptual offspring Twitter, are in any immediate danger of extinction. The numbers of both networks are still climbing. But as Virginia Heffernan reported in the Sunday Times Magazine, there's a growing number of people who are becoming disenchanted with Facebook--and in some cases the whole idea of the Facebook--for a number of reasons.
For some, it's concerns about privacy. Facebook isn't just a friendly neighborhood park; the company profits from the information it collects on users. There were many who objected, in early 2008, to the fact that the site was holding onto profile information even when people closed down their accounts. Not to mention the "oops" when Facebook decided to let everyone in a user's circle know about other internet purchases a user made. There were also some who turned away after the kerfluffle over Facebook's assertion, last February, that it owned the copyright to all content on the site, and some who object to having their personal activity so closely monitored by some large, unseen entity.
But what intrigued me about the group Heffernan interviewed was the number who were simply tiring of checking in on other people's lives all the time, investing in connections that felt more like stalking or distant newsletters instead of direct one-on-one friendship, and a growing unease about how they're spending, or wasting, their time.
I find these growing sentiments reassuring because of an assessment a friend of mine made last spring about the social-network frenzy of Facebook and Twitter. A friend, it should be noted, whose entire job revolves around the development of new technology in Silicon Valley. But both of those technologies, he said, were really geared toward the needs and interests of teenagers and young people. Twitter, after all, evolved from cell phone texting, which nobody does anywhere near as impressively, or frequently, as the under-20 crowd. And Facebook was started by college students as a kind of snide "pig book" to put various students' photos together and allow people to weigh in on who was "hotter." It evolved into a college networking site, and expanded from there. But, still.
The tasks that Facebook and Twitter enhance ... staying connected with as large a group as possible, staying up-to-the-minute informed about what everyone in the social world you care about is doing, and in the process keeping track of where you fit in the social hierarchy of it all ... have been a primary focus of teenagers since time immemorial. Forty years ago, there were gossip cliques by the school lockers and fights over who got to use the family phone to keep up with the latest social status news. All Facebook and Twitter do is give teenagers additional tools to accomplish one of their prime developmental tasks: figuring out how to define themselves in relation to, and as distinct from, the rest of their peers, and exploring a wide variety of social connections within that group.
So in that context, texting, Facebook and Twitter are all terrific developments that, among other things, certainly free up the family phone. The puzzling thing is why they've been so popular among people who are supposed to be a bit beyond that stage. At some point in our development, we're supposed to let go of that obsessive focus on what everyone else is doing in order to focus on our own work and achievements. We're supposed to mature into valuing fewer but more meaningful friendships over the herd social groups we favored as teenagers. And hopefully, we're supposed to get busy enough with more significant contributions to family, community and the world to either care about, or have time for, the movements and chatter of people we're not that deeply connected to. As free time becomes more limited, choices have to be made. And there's a trade-off: to go deep, you can't go as broad.
There are certainly valuable uses for Facebook, even in the 30-something and beyond set. Most of my friends who have teenagers have joined so they have a better awareness of the technology and world their children are experiencing ... and to help them keep track of what's going on in their children's lives. And for older people who can't get out as much, social networking sites offer a way to stay connected with the world, and to keep loneliness at bay. Not to mention their appeal to marketers, who see a way to reach large groups of people (and especially the all-important young demographic) with a sales message in a fairly easy manner.
So the sites have their uses. But using them to compensate for the loneliness of old age, track your kids, or sell a product, is different than being giddy about them--or being addicted to them--for their own sake. And that's the part that's perplexed me about their growing use and popularity among the over-30 set. When teenagers are texting or twittering inane comments during class, they're being difficult, but age-appropriate. When Senators are twittering inane comments during major policy speeches, there's something slightly askew.
But perhaps the fascination with both sites is just a product of our innately curious and exploratory natures. When my sister and I, at ages 15 and 17, bought lacrosse sticks (boys', because we couldn't locate girls'), I remember the way my dad was drawn almost irresistibly toward the back yard where we were trying them out. He watched from the back window, then the open door, then the grass at the foot of the steps. We could feel how much he was itching to have a go at it, even though he'd never held a lacrosse stick in his life. When we finally offered him a turn, he lit up like a Christmas tree and laughed out loud at the novelty of the play. He had a blast with it. But he didn't have the need to play as long as my sister and I did. He tried it, had fun, and then moved on to the other tasks and activities of his day.
The kids come up with something new, and we can't help but want to try it out. But with different life and developmental tasks demanding our focus and time, we don't, or at least we shouldn't, stay as obsessed with it as they are--whether the "it" is the hula hoop, skateboarding, hanging out at the mall ... or a passionate attachment to Facebook or Twitter.
Is that natural dissipation of interest coming to pass with the social networking sites, as well? Hard to say. But if Heffernan's subjects are any guide, it may be ... until, of course, the next exciting new fad, fashion, techno-gizmo, or toy comes to town.
His paranoid style paved the road for Trumpism. Now he fears what’s been unleashed.
Glenn Beck looks like the dad in a Disney movie. He’s earnest, geeky, pink, and slightly bulbous. His idea of salty language is bullcrap.
The atmosphere at Beck’s Mercury Studios, outside Dallas, is similarly soothing, provided you ignore the references to genocide and civilizational collapse. In October, when most commentators considered a Donald Trump presidency a remote possibility, I followed audience members onto the set of The Glenn Beck Program, which airs on Beck’s website, theblaze.com. On the way, we passed through a life-size replica of the Oval Office as it might look if inhabited by a President Beck, complete with a portrait of Ronald Reagan and a large Norman Rockwell print of a Boy Scout.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
As Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt sued the federal government to prevent rules about air and water pollution from taking effect.
Throughout the long campaign, and in the long month that has followed, President-elect Donald Trump sounded some odd notes about the environment.
He rejected the scientific fact of climate change, calling it a hoax or a fraud. He repeatedly announced his intent to repeal all of the Obama administration’s environmental regulations. He lamented, wrongly, that you couldn’t use hairspray anymore because it damaged the ozone layer.
And then, out of nowhere, he met with Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for educating the public about the dangers of climate change.
While the broad strokes of Trump’s policies were never in doubt, there was often enough bizarreness to wonder what he would do with the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency.
As journalists push back against hoaxes and conspiracies, media skeptics are using charges of “fake news” against professionals.
For a term that is suddenly everywhere, “fake news” is fairly slippery.
Is “fake news” a reference to government propaganda designed to look like independent journalism? Or is it any old made-up bullshit that people share as real on the internet? Is “fake news” the appropriate label for a hoax meant to make a larger point? Does a falsehood only become “fake news” when it shows up on a platform like Facebook as legitimate news? What about conspiracy theorists who genuinely believe the outrageous lies they’re sharing? Or satire intended to entertain? And is it still “fake news” if we’re talking about a real news organization that unintentionally gets it wrong? (Also, what constitutes a real news organization anymore?)
Trinidad has the highest rate of Islamic State recruitment in the Western hemisphere. How did this happen?
This summer, the so-called Islamic State published issue 15 of its online magazine Dabiq. In what has become a standard feature, it ran an interview with an ISIS foreign fighter. “When I was around twenty years old I would come to accept the religion of truth, Islam,” said Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi, recalling how he had turned away from the Christian faith he was born into.
At-Trinidadi, as his nom de guerre suggests, is from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a country more readily associated with calypso and carnival than the “caliphate.” Asked if he had a message for “the Muslims of Trinidad,” he condemned his co-religionists at home for remaining in “a place where you have no honor and are forced to live in humiliation, subjugated by the disbelievers.” More chillingly, he urged Muslims in T&T to wage jihad against their fellow citizens: “Terrify the disbelievers in their own homes and make their streets run with their blood.”
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Studies show that for most types of cognitively demanding tasks, anything but quiet hurts performance.
Like most modern “knowledge” workers, I spend my days in an open office. That means I also spend my days amid ringing phones, the inquisitive tones of co-workers conducting interviews, and—because we work in a somewhat old, infamous building—the pounding and drilling of seemingly endless renovations.
Even so, the #content must still be wrung from my distracted brain. And so, I join the characters of trend pieces everywhere in wearing headphones almost all day, every day. And what better to listen to with headphones than music? By now, I’ve worked my way through all the “Focus” playlists on Spotify—most of which sound like they were meant for a very old planetarium—and I’ve looped back around to a genre I like to call “soft, synthy pop songs whose lyrics don’t make much sense:” Think Miike Snow rather than Michael Jackson.
A stray observation helped one researcher to uncover the strange connection between the seashells and lobsters of his childhood.
Born in the Bahamas to a family of lobster fishermen, Nicholas Higgs spent much of his childhood diving in Caribbean waters, working on boats, and collecting shells on the beach. That connection to the sea stayed with him. He moved to the UK and became a marine biologist. He studied whales and marine worms. And on his wedding day, he asked his parents to bring some shells from the Bahamas to decorate the dining tables. Those shells, which symbolized his past, would also define his future.
At the wedding, his former boss picked one up and identified it as a lucinid clam—a group that feeds in a strange way. While most clams filter food from the surrounding water, lucinids get almost all their nourishment from bacteria that live in their gills. And the bacteria create their own food—just like plants, but with one critical difference. Plants make nutrients by harnessing the sun’s energy, in a process called photosynthesis. But the clam bacteria get their energy by processing minerals in their surroundings. That’s chemosynthesis—making nutrients with chemical power instead of solar power.
Americans are optimistic about the communities they live in—but not their nation. Why?
I have been alive for a long time. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when I was a 10th-grader, and then watching with my family through the grim following days as newscasters said that something had changed forever. The next dozen years were nearly nonstop trauma for the country. More assassinations. Riots in most major cities. All the pain and waste and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and then the public sense of heading into the utterly unknown as, for the first time ever, a president was forced to resign. Americans of my children’s generation can remember the modern wave of shocks and dislocations that started but did not end with the 9/11 attacks.
Through all this time, I have been personally and professionally, and increasingly, an American optimist. The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have not simply made me more aware of my own strong identity as an American. They have also sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself. What I have seen directly over the past decade, roughly half in China and much of the rest in reporting trips around the United States, has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.