Instagramming Dinosaurs: Clive Thompson on Public Thinking (2 of 4)

This is the second of my four part interview with Clive Thompson, as we sat between our T-Rex and Apatosaurus. This segment focuses on public thinking.

As we are sitting here on a Thursday morning, the initial school groups that we saw have moved on, and now the tourists are coming in, the adults. And they are not only taking photos, they are doing something else on their phones. We can’t see what they are doing, but we can make some guesses.

They are probably posting publicly what they are doing, right? This is one of the great shifts in our behavior. We are now engaging in a lot of what I call public thinking: when something interesting occurs, you now have the ability to broadcast that to the world, to interested friends, to interesting strangers, and to share what you are thinking or seeing.

I actually did see, as I was walking in here, someone making a Facebook posting. Just as I was approaching the museum. There was a group of college students, and two of them were taking a picture of the other ones in front of the Teddy Roosevelt statue upfront. And one of them was writing a little note about it. I couldn’t read the note (I wasn’t being that naughty) but they were writing some notes about it.

And so this shift is very interesting because, for a long time, the average person didn’t really do much expression at all, and almost no public expression. You basically went through high school, you finished college if you went to college, where you sort of wrote papers where you tried to formalize your knowledge or share that knowledge with someone else, but once you finished college or high school that was basically it. You didn’t really write anything down, you didn’t express your ideas because there was no venue for it. There was no way to publish what you were thinking about. And this is always something very hard for journalists and academics to understanding, because we spend our lives constantly writing and writing and writing and putting things before audiences, but for the average person this was simply not a common experience at all.

So we have in the last 15 years this sudden vertiginous shift to where people routinely are writing down their experiences, their thoughts, and putting them out for other people. If you talk to psychologists about what happens inside your head as you do this, as you are here in the museum and you are looking at the dinosaur and you are taking a picture and you are writing a note about it, a couple of interesting things happen.

One is what’s called the audience effect, which is where, anytime you go before an audience, you suddenly panic a little bit. You don’t want to look stupid, and you work harder to look smart. Over and over we see this. If you take a bunch of students and ask them to write a paper for their teacher, they will try to do their best job but they are aware that this is kind of a fake audience, as the teacher is being paid. It’s not an authentic audience. Whereas if you say to them you are  going to show this online, to other students and other countries, suddenly they write forty percent longer, and they use more complex senses, more complex thoughts, because they are worried about looking stupid. They want to impress. And this is the audience effect. We see this all the time. Athletes feel it. Performers feel it. And on an everyday level, people feel this now.

I watch over people’s shoulders as they are writing a status update or as they are writing a comment in an Instagram thread. They will write and then they will delete. And they will write and they will delete. And they will write and they will delete. I’ll ask, What are you doing? You know you are only writing 15 words. They say, Yes, but I want to get this right.

There is this desire to refine and reflect on what they are thinking about. It clarifies your thinking. It’s like Cecil Day-Lewis said: We don’t write to be understood, we write to understand.

And the next thing that happens with public thinking is that conversations very frequently emerge. These conversations are super interesting because they often pull together what sociologists call “weak links.”  So a strong link is someone that you know really, really well. They are a close friend, a family member, someone you see frequently.  We only have room for a small number of strong links. In life they support us. But when it comes to information, about learning things, finding things out, it turns out that the weak links are actually more valuable. A weak link is somebody that you don’t know very well, maybe someone you met a year ago at a party or someone you vaguely know in the neighborhood. Now, those weak links are valuable because they are not like you and your friends and so they know different things.

This weak link cultivation is exactly what happens when we do more public thinking. Once you are setting down your ideas all sorts of people, people that you had no idea that were going to be interested in it, will start talking about it. You know, Facebook is kind of the big six hundred pound gorilla, but I encourage people to move into where you get weaker links. Things like twitter. Things like blogging. Things like Instagram. Even discussion forums. If you are interested in  dinosaur bones go and find the discussion forum where people talk about that, because the weak links will be fantastic.

Joe Kahne did some studies and found that when students were involved in discussion groups that were devoted to their passions — snowboarding, video games, or whatever — they encountered a broader range of people. Their conversations were intergenerational. And it was much more rich and more civil than what was happening in Facebook. And that’s because there’s more weak links being cultivated and people are doing public thinking around interesting subjects.

So you see public thinking happening in places like this museum all the time because it is filled with all these rich things.


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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