Monthly Archives: February 2009

Keep your identity humble

A recent essay by Paul Graham called Keep Your Identity Small has been read and shared by a number of people in my circle. I mentioned though a Google Reader note that I disagreed with the essay’s conclusions, and a friend asked me to expand. This post is the result.

Graham argues that the reason some conversations degenerate into useless arguments—most notably political and religious conversations—is because those topics “become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity.” This means that the problem with discussing politics or religion isn’t with the topic itself, but rather with the “partisan” people who participate in a discussion. Graham explains that “you could in principle have a useful conversation about [politics and religion] with some people,” just not people who have a political or religious identity.

In his final paragraph and in a comment on his own essay, Graham even goes so far as to say that “the more labels” a person has, the “dumber” that person is, and that identity makes one “stupid.”

The foundational claims of the essay are demonstrably false in their extremism. While it’s obvious that some people who identify with a religious or political label are impossible to talk to, it’s equally obvious that that doesn’t apply to everyone with a religious or political identity. To claim that you can “never have a fruitful argument” about politics with someone who holds political beliefs is absurd. I have had many such conversations with conservatives, liberals, libertarians, devout atheists, fundamentalist Christians, etc. These conversations have borne fruit in the form of a greater understanding of (and sometimes a change to) my own identity and beliefs.

Even the strength of one’s identity is not necessarily a determining factor in whether or not that person is able to have a fruitful discussion. There are people with very strong political or religious beliefs (Desmond Tutu, Joe Clark, Bill Blaikie, Barack Obama) who are still constructive and flexible for the sake of good debate where others are rigid. (That does not mean they don’t hold strongly to their beliefs, simply that they are confident enough in their beliefs to have them tested and questioned from different perspectives.) Conversely, I have known people to be rigid and stubbornly argumentative simply for the sake of arguing, even though they’ll later admit, when pressed, that they didn’t actually believe in anything they were saying.

Graham is therefore not describing anyone and everyone with an identity, but rather people who are stubborn, rigid, extreme or fundamentalist in their identity. People in this category can have many labels or even none.

I regard the conclusion that it’s advisable to “keep your identity small” to be at best unproductive and at worst dangerous. I would rather surround myself with people who disagree with me and belong to different schools of thought yet are willing to respect diversity of opinion and belief than with people who have gone out of their way to try and not answer the questions “who am I, what do I believe in, what do I think is worth advocating and standing up for?” Those are the questions that define identity, and that drive individual and societal improvement and progress.

I therefore think it is more advisable to allow your identity to grow and flourish, but to keep it humble. Hold beliefs, but don’t stop questioning them. Find truths, but never stop seeking new ones. Create an identity for yourself, but never stop growing and evolving as you learn from the identities that others have created for themselves. Take pride in the communities you choose to belong to, and respect and admire those to which you do not belong.

And finally, in arguments, try to follow Graham’s advice on how to disagree, which I think is much more productive than his advice to keep your identity small.

What is Twitter, and how do I make it go away?

When I first heard about Twitter a few years ago, it was easy to ignore as part of the background noise of new Web 2.0 properties. In fact, I felt justified in my decision to delay adopting Twitter by a blog post titled “Top Ten Reasons Why Web 2.0 Sucks,” which included the challenge to “walk outside your door and try to find a Twitter user… You’ve got six hours. Go. Trust me, we’re talking to ourselves.” The author was right.

Nowadays, however, it wouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to find a Twitter user. (Ok, maybe only if you’re in a very densely populated area, but still.) When I finally caved and setup my Twitter account two weeks ago (initiating it with the same skepticism and reluctance I used to launch this blog), a search of my Gmail address book discovered I already knew 140 people on Twitter including my dad, one of my favourite novelists and my mother in law.

In the world of internet trends there’s a technical term for this. It’s called being “fashionably late.”

So, if you’re still hoping that Twitter will vanish before you have to learn to understand it, you may be out of luck. It’s here to stay, at least for the next few years. If you’re hearing the word come up with increased frequency in business or social circles, it might be time to try it out.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is an internet application that allows you to keep other people (friends, co-workers, strangers) up to date on your status. You can also use it to share quick thoughts, links, pictures, or pretty much anything you want. The only catch: you have to do it all in 140 characters or less. For example, so far I’ve used it to announce an upcoming musical performance, let people know I was on my way to watch an improv show (and then post a map link once I arrived), complain that I was getting sick, and announce that my train was arriving 45 minutes late.

These tweets, as they’re called, are very similar to a Facebook profile’s status line. (In fact, you can configure Twitter to automatically update your Facebook status.) They can also be described as “micro-blog” posts, good for quick hits that don’t warrant a long-form post, or that perhaps have not yet been flushed out into one.

Why would I use Twitter?

So if Twitter is just a glorified Facebook status, or a blog without any substance (yes, I am contending that some blogs contain substance), why does it matter, and why would anyone want to use it? Here are a few reasons I’ve discovered in my first few weeks:

  1. Twitter is a public conversation. All public tweets are searchable, which means you’re not just talking with yourself or with your friends: you’re interacting with other people who are talking about the same things you are, in real time. The applications for this vary from entertainment (people watching TV, or sharing random thoughts) to practical (people updating each other on the TTC’s status) to news (people reporting on and reacting to real time news events).
  2. Twitter is fluid and versatile. Users can tag their posts with any keyword they want on the fly (#carcrash, #iPhone, #dinner) to instantly create a limitless number of categories and conversations. No need for an administrator to create the conversation; the conversation begins as soon as the first phrase is muttered. You can search the public feed or see what people are taking about right now using trending.
  3. Twitter plays well with others. Instead of taking time away from your Facebook account, your blog and your other online activities, Twitter integrates with them and enhances them. Your blog can update your Twitter account, your Twitter account can update your blog, your Twitter account can update your Facebook status, etc.
  4. Twitter is highly mobile. So far I’ve updated Twitter using the web, an iPhone app, a BlackBerry app and a simple SMS text message, and I haven’t even exhausted all the options. That means that unlike most other things you do online, there are very low barriers to regular, spontaneous use.
  5. Twitter is low commitment. On most social networks (like Facebook) all connections must be mutual (if you want to be friends with me, I have to friend you back). Not so with Twitter, where the people who follow you and the people you follow don’t have to be identical. For example, I can chose to follow the updates of Toronto Mayor David Miller and city councillor Adam Giambrone whether they want to follow me back or not. (In case you’re wondering, the latter does, the former does not.)

Happy tweeting.

Bad news

I’m hearing the same message from many friends: it’s awful out there. With the economy going from bad to worse, we’re all focused on keeping our heads down and doing our jobs. Some of us have taken on more than one title at the same company in the hopes that it will make us less disposable. For the first time members of my generation know what it’s like to have their job security threatened en masse. We know that if we don’t do our jobs, someone else gladly will.

My current business, newspapers, is no exception. In the United States, Tribune Co. (owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and other daily newspapers) has filed for bankruptcy and the New York Times looked to mortgage their building to generate funds. Here in Canada, Sun Media cut 600 jobs in December, and in back-to-back announcements this month the Globe and Mail eliminated 90 positions and The Chronicle Herald cut 24 reporters, or almost a full quarter of their newsroom. Meanwhile Canwest, which owns daily local papers across the country as well as the National Post, has seen their stock plummet to less than a dollar a share and is desperately attempting to sell assets while having their borrowing ability curtailed. In other words, the newspaper business is in serious trouble.

John Honderich, former publisher of The Toronto Star, recently argued in said publication that the decline of newspapers “should concern us all:”

For me, it relates directly to the very quality of our democracy. In order for all of us to live meaningfully and participate in our community, we must be appropriately informed.

In this regard, the quality of public debate, if not the very quality of life in any community, is a direct function of the quality of media that serve it. Indeed, the functioning of a healthy democracy is predicated on a well-informed populace.

By that measure we must deem the news media in recent years to be a complete failure.

The “quality of public debate” has not been lower in living memory. Politicians fuel their campaigns entirety on spin, void of substance, never fearing that anyone will call them on it. Once elected, even Parliamentarians in the highest offices can be counted on to sink to the lowest levels of discourse. Members of the government recently went so far as to describe actions of the opposition as “treason” and a “coup d’état” when they were, in fact, operating well within the rules of our Parliamentary democracy.

Enter the “well-informed populace,” which, not knowing any better, believed the government’s blatant lies. A survey conducted by Ipsos Reid for the Dominion Institute shortly after the coalition debacle revealed that the majority of Canadians lack an understanding of some of the most basic elements of how their democracy functions.

And what of that “healthy, functioning” democracy? Far better than the countries that have none to be sure, but a far cry from where it should be too. We remain one of the last parliamentary democracies on Earth to use an antiquated voting system that delivers results we did not ask for. This, despite the fact that when citizens have studied the issue, they have chosen change. Of those entrenched institutions standing in the way of democratically-driven voting reform, few have been as staunch as newspapers (including Honderich’s).

By these measures, the news media is not doing its job, and that should indeed concern us all. It should also concern the media, because if you don’t do your job, someone else gladly will. And right now, even a comedian from Newfoundland with a standard definition TV and a one dollar pointer is giving you a run for your money.