Socially critical thinking

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Social software maps the networks we already know. Presumably, the goal is to have the systems we interact with enable or inform us about something or someone we do not.

Recently I have been beating a drum with a colleague on the lack of critical thinking people bring to bare, regardless of environment – digital or real – and how we might support more thoughtful interactions. The disturbing trend is that people communicate critique through disengagement and silence. Anyone who has enjoyed a college-level art class can affirm that the most humbling and beneficial moments come from open critiques.

Your work, something you sweat over for hours, is hanging up against a wall along side those of your peers. Artists hang their work on the wall, stand back and review in hopes to see what they might be missing. The things we like and dislike about art often thought to be subjective, that taste is something unique to us. If this were true then more people agree than disagree on esthetically pleasing artistic expression. Go to an art critique and watch as people judge both on the technical execution and on the way the piece makes them feel. For the artist, it is likely the first time anyone has interacted with them around their art; it is the beginning of a dialogue. When there is agreement, the artist has communicated something so well that everyone remarks. If the reaction is not in-line with the artist’s intention, then it is an opportunity to learn and adjust. Art is, at least in part, communication. For whatever reason, we do not ask our peers to hang Power Point slides up on the wall and reflect. Ask a developer to be honest about their anxiety of participating in a code review. We have created a culture of quite, passive, secret thoughts.

People need to be more critical. Not negative, critical. We have an opportunity every day to contribute to the reality we share, if even only to compliment. Why withhold so much in fear that we might offend? Try starting with what you liked and then follow up with your suggestion. Venture out and express how you feel the next time someone asks you for your thoughts. Do not just say, “looks good,” because that is the same as silence.

When you organize jour [sic] social world solely around affinity, then you get an endless hall of mirrors. – Adam Greenfield, Author, Adjunct Professor at New York University, from an interview with Zachary Jean Paradis, Sapient, interview.

Social spaces are about the participants and their connections. If they are unable to show us something other than what we know, they have failed. Collecting the list of people we know is an ego game, whose meaning is short lived. Part of addressing this challenge is in valuing the diversity among us – go beyond gender, race and include thought. Love the person who disagrees with you, because you have the opportunity to learn something new. Be more critical of what you see. Find others that are willing to be more critical of you. Decide that a hall of mirrors, while familiar, is not as interesting as what other people are showing.