From an essay by Roger Ebert about how the internet rewires our brains. A lot of the essay is about the importance of stepping away from the computer and reading our way through actual books — long books that you read straight through in a linear fashion (which ends up being long novels, which just happen to be something he loves doing anyway). But I was struck by the Facebook/Twitter point. We spend a lot of time on the internet, but we do different things here, so it's not just a matter of what The Internet does to our brains.
In fact, Reading Books isn't just one distinctive activity. Ebert writes about books as if book = Victorian novel. But some of us like reading nonfiction, including books that don't require linear reading at all. You can dip back and forth in a book and read snippets in very much the same style as web-surfing. When I'm reading books, I like a stack of books of different kinds. I might read a few pages in one, then switch to another, maybe rotate through the whole pile, very similar to the way I'd open up a set of tabs in my browser and cycle through them. And I like reference books and essay collections — e.g., a collection of movie reviews — that are best read by jumping around.
By the same token, on the internet, there are different ways to read. As Ebert's Facebook/Twitter point shows, reading is deeply interwoven with writing and with the feeling of interacting with other people. Sitting by yourself with a long book is quite unnatural by comparison. I think it could be said that the internet takes our urge to read and reintegrates us with society. It's more like the natural world that we evolved to live in: there should be the constant potential for interruptions and distractions; we should be giving and receiving communication to and from other people who are alive now and able to respond to us. In that light, long books distort our brains, and the internet brings us back to human society.
And being on the internet isn't just one distinctive activity. Some people like Facebook and some like Twitter. Me, I love blogging. I've done the other 2, but blogging suits me best — in part because I have so many commenters who come here and make this feel like the lively coffeehouse or salon I always hoped I could find in real life. Ebert says Facebook looks inward, and he prefers Twitter, but isn't it funny that if Facebook is really inward, it's more like the long novels that Ebert uses as an antidote to the internet experience? Ebert twits like mad — his Twitter feed is excellent — but maybe he's using it, in part, as a change of pace from those Victorian novels.
We can, each of us, design our own mix of experiences — in nature, in face-to-face human encounters, with books, with pen and paper, and using computers to read and write. We balance and offset. We seek pleasure and satisfaction and power and wisdom. We begin where we begin. One individual begins with too few real-life friends and a love of thick novels, another begins with a chattering schoolgirl clique and a Facebook page. Add something to that and then to that. Inward, outward/outward, inward. Make life better, in your own way.