Good or bad? Wrong question

Aaron Swartz is an interesting guy. One of the co-founders of Reddit, the Digg-like recommendation engine that was recently bought by the Conde Nast magazine-publishing empire, his blog often has long and thoughtful posts with a refreshingly different perspective. His latest is no exception: In a post entitled “Everything Good is Bad For You,” he writes about what he sees as the downside of Web services like Twitter, and even Reddit itself.

snipshot_d4gj20bm1iv.jpgAfter Reddit became popular, Aaron says, people came up to him and said how much they enjoyed using it, but also talked about how it had destroyed their productivity and consumed their lives. Many people have said the same about YouTube or MySpace or Facebook — and how they spend all their time updating their profile or checking their friend requests or scanning for pictures — and is the latest addition to the family of time-wasting, attention-destroying applications, Aaron suggests. He quotes Cory Doctorow as saying: “It’s like watching someone shovel Mars Bars into his gob while telling you how much he hates chocolate.” Aaron argues that Reddit and Twitter and other tools are the equivalent of chocolate bars.

Peter Caputa at pc4media makes an even stronger argument, saying the tech blogosphere is “just a bunch of surface skimming idiots in a bar w/ no alcohol, and that it’s “mostly Michael Arrington’s fault.” At some point, he says, companies have to “gaze beyond your own navel and come up with a business model; an application that connects people in meaningful ways to accomplish goals beyond instant self-gratification.”

I think Aaron and Peter are both right, in a sense. It’s easy to get consumed by things like Twitter or Facebook or even instant messaging for that matter, and they are a little like junk food — fast, sugar high, illusion of being full, etc. And yet, I can’t agree completely. Why? As a commenter notes on Aaron’s blog, a lot of novels are crap too, and probably just as bad for you (don’t get me started on television). Is reading a blog any worse than reading a potboiler detective novel? I don’t know, but it’s a pretty close race.

In the end, I think a lot of the things we’re seeing are experiments, and no one really knows whether they will actually be useful or not, or what they really *mean* in the larger sense. I do know that things like Twitter and Facebook and MySpace connect people in ways that novels do not — I’m not saying that’s necessarily better. Just saying.

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