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How Social Media makes me smarter

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Apparently social media is making us less sociable and stupid. In several books, articles and posts I have read recently there is a lot of concern about how social media allows us to be lazy social beings and shuts us off from the ‘real world’. Because we have online access to a multitude of strangers we now don’t need to connect to our real-life friends in real-world situations. And if that wasn’t bad enough we are apparently reading less books so we’re also getting dumber. According to the authors we’re headed for a world where we have no privacy, no friends and a mental state equivalent to a chocolate sundae.

These opinions, and they are opinions, couldn’t be further from the truth. They are nothing more than fear based reactions to new technology and ideas. Here’s why you should be cautious of these doom and gloom scenarios:

  1. Reading fewer books does not equal a lower intelligence or performance. There is no correlation between the number of book read and being smart. What the web offers is the opportunity to access written information far quicker and more efficiently than books alone could. The point is not how many books we read but how much information we have access to. Having 100 books in my bookcase is less useful to my kids than having a couple of laptops with access to the web. My 11 year old can quickly look up performances of Macbeth so he can practice for the lead in the upcoming school play while my 6 yr old searches dinosaur images for the best one to reference while building his latest play-doe sculpture. My own battle with dyslexia as a kid drove me away from reading but that still didn’t stop me from passing the Mensa exam after I escaped from the structure of the classroom. Having immediate and free access to information and the people that create that information makes me smarter. Mobile technology makes that even faster so inherently makes my brain better equipped to get the information I need. Access to book reviews helps me pick the best books to read and which to avoid. That saves me having to read popular crap and focus in on what’s really going to help me smarter.
  2. Social connections with friends on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t make me less social, it makes me me more social. Just because the medium or channel is different doesn’t make it less social. Humans are wired to be social. In a recent article by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker, Gawande points to several studies that prove we are fundamentally attracted to situations which connect us to other people. Solitary confinement or even self-imposed “cocooning” is as detrimental to your brain as physical brain trauma. Social media allows us to make connections, however small, to remind ourselves we’re part of a much bigger society. We can solve bigger problems by connections even when they are only “tweets” or comments on a blog. These micro-social engagements also lead to more old fashioned socializing. Through Twitter I have discovered several local web innovation events that I’ll be attending in the company of other real people. I’ve also been connected to dozens of new clients and business partners. Twitter now accounts for most of the new traffic to our website.
  3. Privacy is the biggest distraction ever concocted by web critics. If two thirds of our brain is dedicated to making social connections to other humans then why is there such a concern with privacy? Who are we trying to protect? Breaking down barriers to information helps us make smarter. We make better decisions when we know more about the people we meet. Googling a potential client or a new friend helps me get a deeper understanding of their backgrounds and their personalities. I don’t buy the argument that a lack of privacy endangers our children either. There have been far more crimes against children before the web, the only difference is that now we can see what what’s been going on behind closed doors. If you teach your children to “do their homework” and Google their friends and new connections they’ll learn to make better decisions. Hiding away behind the privacy argument is ostrich mentality. This is not to say you shouldn’t use parental controls to avoid your 6 yr old stumbling on a porn site. That’s a no brainer but we also need to stop pretending that this is something that we can control. The privacy horse bolted a long time ago and our job is to understand how to make it a positive force. Not avoiding the truth but rather focusing that energy of abundant information makes us the smart ones.

Your brain wouldn’t have evolved it’s huge socializing frontal cortex if connecting to other human beings wasn’t a primary driver of successful evolution. Connecting is what we do. The great social experiment is not in the details of how we connect but rather that we are connecting more than we have ever before. Connections make us smarter. At a neurological level and at an ecological level. I really don’t need to have another scientific study to know that connecting to more people is better. It’s written in my genes and my anatomy. I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for the fundamental evolutionary drive to connect.  My entire existence is about socializing with or without the web. I’m just very fortunate that I live in a time when connecting is so much faster and easier. I’m smarter because of the social web and I look forward to getting smarter.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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