Opinion Fatigue or Productive Serendipity? Where do you sit in the Babel Web?

If, like me, your head is spinning with the constant conversation, your ears vibrating with the latest buzz and your hands weary from punching keys on the latest digital toys, then perhaps you would do me the kindness of joining me – perhaps under the shade of a virtual tree – for a bit of thinking about where we’ve got to.

I’ve been pondering quite a bit these last few weeks, particularly as Twitter has drawn towards its present popularity peak and other, equally useful microsharing tools (watch out for 12 secondstv) have become available.  Much of it is white noise, some of it resembles a rather unpleasantly behaved high-school playground and in the midst of it all, many practitioners persist in trumpeting like elephants in musth that all the tools make for ‘New PR’.

A while ago , I ventured the opinion that new tools don’t make for new public relations and although tools like Twitter helped people find a voice, their main benefit lay in providing practitioners with a listening and monitoring suite, rather than simply an opportunity to start talking ‘at’ people. As predicted, microblogging has become de rigueur, but I do wonder if microblogging has also ushered in a tendency towards microthinking. I am as guilty as the next geek when it comes to an off-hand 20-word observation, or a too-soon re-tweet, but involvement in microblog conversations (outside the fairly self-absorbed social media loop) reveals – for me at least – an alarming degradation of language, expression and thinking to the point where the recycling of opinion, ill-informed or otherwise, does nothing to reassure me as to the future of the planet.

Rumour has it that the online tools have been used to great effect in readiness for next week’s G20 summit in London. Activists have embraced their use in order to, at the very least, impose a threat and, at worst, fulfill a promise of far worse ‘action’ to come. It would seem that ‘burn a banker’ has been chosen as the mot juste for the day, with the less-than-veiled suggestion that the moneylenders may be whipped around London’s Temple – to the point where establishments have advised their staff to ‘dress down’ and avoid meetings.

On the other hand, many use the toolkit for very positive ends, building long term, fruitful relationships with their communities. There are of course, oft-reported instances of people getting it wrong – but if it is an honest mistake caused by recent interaction with the toolset, what the heck? I think it was Samuel Beckett who said something along the lines of  ‘fail, but fail better next time’.

So as I mentally chewed over the myriad of opinions, facts and faux-facts swilling round my addled brain, it occured to me that maybe all these distracting voices were more likely to lead me towards serendipitous productivity than opinion fatigue. If, like me, you monitor much information from a multiplicity of sources, you may have some sympathy when I explain I reached a point where there were just so many voices on so many platforms with so many opinions about everything it became quite oppressive – almost as though there was nothing left to discover or say.  A strong cup of tea and a bit of a sit down later, I reminded myself of the origins of serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole back in 1754, and suggested by the old story (first published in Venice in 1557) of the Three Princes of Serendip. The princes were always making discoveries they were not looking for either by accident or because of the sagacity of their thinking.

In more recent times, other disciplines and industries have benefited greatly from serendipity – and often, on the first ‘discovery’ thought they had got it all wrong. Medicine springs to mind as an example; Alexander Fleming (schoolgirl memory here) was supposed to have sneezed on his petri dish and rather than cleaning up straight away, just let the bugs grow, eventually leading him to penicillin. He is reported to have said: “Nature makes penicillin, I just found it. One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”  Once, the medieval medics would have encouraged the liberal use of leeches in every circumstance – so too, in these formative years of digital connectivity, social media remedies are, in many instances, being prescribed just because they are there, rather than because they are efficacious. And that is detrimental to the relationship – which is, after all, our ultimate responsibility.

Which brings me to the question I’d put to you as we reflect under our virtual tree (and before the mayhem of disintegrating, unmediated relationships begins in earnest in London and elsewhere). Do you, like me, believe that the tools are additional items we can use on our serendipitous and evolutionary journey towards more professional, ethical public relations practice that contributes to the public good, or are you happily at one with the Babel-like cacophony that declares social media is, in itself, the ‘new PRomised land’?

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5 Replies to “Opinion Fatigue or Productive Serendipity? Where do you sit in the Babel Web?

  1. What an interesting post, and as Toni pointed out, very elegantly written. It made me think.

    Yes, of course, I agree that we’re just learning to ‘read, write and count’ social media. In the process, we’re, like children, turning books upside down, checking if they make more sense then and so on. And it’s so natural too. Remember that before you can compose a poem yourself, you have to read hundreds of those written by others. And that’s why we should use Twitter, although most PR people still don’t see a value in it, and join communities, and read many different blogs. It might not be the destination, but we’ve got to walk the path.

    And when it comes to serendipity, well, it’s like Nietzsche once said: ‘You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star”. For me, Twitter, for example, is not about microthinking, degradation of language or recycling of opinion. It’s about the market place of ideas and one of the best public spheres out there – and in the middle of this creative chaos the most profound conceptions are born.

  2. David Rowan editor of Wired magazine writes in today’s The Times:

    “Twitter is now so celebrity-favoured that the cool kids dismiss it as “tired”, and Second Life is so over-commercialised as to be unrevivably “expired.”

    “….in the fickle realm of online chatter, yesterday’s achingly fashionable meeting points are rapidly acquiring the funerary aura of Icelandic bank headquarters.”

    I say, it would seem PRs are arriving on the mainstream social media (aren’t all media social?) scene as the party moves on.

    Of course the virtual world is here to stay. But real world media are taking over the virtual sphere. Reality check on.



  3. We have always had micro-communication – think about the short conversation at work waiting for the kettle to boil (or the coffee cup to drop in the machine) or the quick phone call – indeed, the elevator pitch or soundbite. We also have the option to leave a message, send a text and now Twitter or micro-blog.

    Fortunately, we also retain “long communication”, which is facilitated by new media – the ability to connect via social networks to meet in the real world with existsing and new contacts, take advantage of Skype for calls which would be unimaginable a few years ago, read considered blog-posts, access full texts via Google books, read brilliant academic papers via open-access, etc etc.

    Yes, there is the potential for information overload or dumbing down communications into the online equivalent of teenage grunts, but I’m sure our ancestors moaned about time wasted reading books, newspapers, talking on the telephone, and so on.

    I have to say that for me, the best type of serendipity comes when I have time to reflect on all the different stimuli coming at my senses.

    So finding time to switch off and allow the back of the brain to do its unconscious magic is as vital today as its ever been. I always like to remember that the original Eureka moment occurred during a relaxing bath!

  4. Let’s all relax. Commentators – such as Clay Shirky – who think the internet allows us to organise without organisations, or who believe that newspapers are toast, are in for a shock. After all, the most followed Twitter of all is CNN. This highlights how for serious stuff the majority of people still favour old-fashioned organisational forms for news rather than the dribble that most amateurs generate on Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

  5. My first reaction to this post is to book a flight to New Zealand and ask you to supply me with a full course on how to write in english. This is beautifully written.

    My second reaction is that serendipity, as much as one would like to think its frequence to be somehow related to the dynamics of information overload, probably rests much more in the subjective self rather than in the quantity of stimuli.
    Is anyone aware of some neuroscience in this? I have begun reading Jonah Lehrer’s interesting How We Decide, which has just come out http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/books/review/Johnson-t.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=jonah%20lehrer&st=cse but I don’t think it covers this issue.

    My third reaction is that your microblogging/microthinking parallel is acute and well in line with my resistance to adopt twitter (I am sure that fellow prc bloggers and twitter advocates Markus Pirchner, Joao Duarte and maybe? Judy Gombita will want to discuss this…).
    Also, I often feel, as you write that ….involvement in microblog conversations… reveals – for me at least – an alarming degradation of language, expression and thinking to the point where the recycling of opinion, ill-informed or otherwise, does nothing to reassure me…

    Finally, while on the one hand I increasingly feel frustrated by the overwhelming amount of trash which abunds in today’s public relations practice only enhanced by the social media explosion, on the other hand, I am encouraged by the curiosity I see amongst colleagues of the younger generation.
    I fear it is only my old age which leads me to the latter observation, but I very much hope this is not so.

    Thank you Catherine. A superb post.

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