Social media is a channel optimised for the insignificant

James Gardner of the Bankervision blog (nod to Tony for pointing me to this one) beautifully describes the presiding logic of insignificance in social media in this post. Below is the excerpt that hit my like a diamond in the forehead:

Over the past few days, I’ve been conducting an experiment: using my Facebook status, I’ve been trying to see just how ridiculously uninteresting I can get before people dump me.

On the first day, I told everyone that I was still breathing.

On the second, that my heart was beating, and I was counting how many times it did it.

For the third, I said that I’d blinked, but that as it was a normal bodily function, no one should be surprised.

And today, I have uploaded a photo of the specific piece of gravel on which I stand waiting for my morning train.

Here is what I’ve found out so far: the less useful the content is, the more people engage with it. You’d not believe the string of emails I’ve been getting.

Now, although this is not an especially scientific experiment, it suggests to me you can build engagement with social media on things that are unimportant and irrelevant. But when you say things which, theoretically, would be interesting and useful, paradoxically, no one cares. Social media is a channel optimised for the insignificant.

While some might think this is a slam on social media, I actually think it is a really perceptive and beautifully articulated description of the presiding logic of these social spaces. If you enter these spaces with pedantic recommendations, overly wrought theories, extreme beliefs, or a product to sell, chances are people will turn you off immediately. Yet, if you don’t have much to say, an axe to grind, or a specific idea to push, chances are others will not only engage you, but also listen. In many ways this seems counter-productive to the idea of thinking of these spaces as “learning” spaces, but I think that has everything to do with how we have traditionally framed learning spaces. Here there is a give and take that isn’t pre-figured as the authoritative domain of any one party—as a classroom always already is no matter how much we try and re-structure that spatial/personal relationship with all our hippie theories— but rather a conversation that we all have to disarm ourselves to some degree to enter with any kind of success and honesty.

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21 Responses to Social media is a channel optimised for the insignificant

  1. Sue F says:

    Interesting stuff – it’s ringing for me with an odd (but relevant, I think) echo of the fact that real learning is often separate from the model or framework of “the grade.”

  2. Interesting take. While I agree, I’m missing how the minutia moves to substance? In your post you seem to be saying that if you enter the conversation with too much substance, you turn people off.

    Maybe I’m misreading but are you simply making the statement that you need to build social credit in order to move to more substantive discussions? That I agree with but I’m not sure that’s exactly what you’re saying here.

  3. Reverend says:

    The grade seems harder and harder for me to understand in regards to a social frame, and think this may be a key point of breakdown as you suggest. But, I wonder if grading in this regard became a relationship between a group of people through a kind of promotion of what they liked and why, we may have a different, and less rigid means of thinking this through. Though that comes with its own issues, yet I imagine this is still about experimentation for none of us really know the answers.

    Yeah, I’m not clear on this at all. But I think the idea of an insignificant discussion may prove far more relevant than a pre-loaded gun for learning. In other words, social credit is not about establishing yourself as an authority per se—though that happens regardless—but remaining within a conversational space beyond any one all encompassing theme. A way to make connections between ideas which may seem insignificant but actually is meat for thought beyond the skeleton of a curricula or syllabus. I’m not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, I understand the place of education—but I think when we talk about education as it intersects with social media we may have to re-think what significant and substantial means. We may also have to re-think the idea of teaching and learning with a notion of entertainment and performance.

    Does that make any sense? Or is it just chatter 🙂

  4. Andrea says:

    One day I twittered about bacon.

    That conversation between me and at least a dozen followers lasted all freaking day.


    Granted, bacon *is* tasty, but is it that the insignificant is all we have time for any more? Or is the significant found in something as simple as bacon? Is the 140 character limit on twitter (for example) distilling it down to the importance of seemingly insignificant things until they become significant unto themselves? or maybe it’s an exercise in making these simple things interesting or amusing.

    or I could just be hungry.

  5. Reverend says:


    Ironically, the more I re-read this the more I am doing the very thing I’m suggesting one shouldn’t, namely prescribe a logic or push an idea. It’s almost impossible for me not too. Which makes this quote all the more powerful, because I think it asks me to give up on things i probably never will, but it does answer the question for me about why people like Robert Scoble and the like become such dominant figures in this space–I think it’s because they have mastered the idea of insignificance. I don;t know, I think there may be an ounce of significance there, but I don’t exactly know what to do with it.

  6. Reverend says:


    I think the insignificant is the basis of these relationships in some ways. But it doesn’t necessarily remain there. Once someone has chatted with you about Bacon, maybe their ready to actually talk about a full breakfast the next time, or even what thye had for breakfast, or even that their family never ate breakfast together which ultimately explains why their family doesn’t keep in touch anymore. My stupid point being the engagement around insignificance will draw out significance without the same kind of prodding we usually get when we immediately frame something as significant. It’s almost more natural and powerful, yet I think the art of the insignificant has its own logic that one must tune into, or even stumble upon. Yeah once it becomes an “art” isn’t it fashioned in some artificial way? I don;t know, it’s almost inescapable to prevent myself from returning to some kind of intentionality, I’m hardwired for it, though I know it is dead end.

    What did you have for breakfast? 🙂

  7. Ed Webb says:

    I have to ponder this, or rather play with it. This is either a profound or a trivial observation, but quite possibly both. There is a zen of social media, perhaps, that rewards non-linear, ‘illogical’ approaches to understanding what we do in these spaces. It certainly rewards fun. The significance lies in insignificance. The media are social insofar as they are not anything but social (which also reverberates with this:

    Also this:

  8. Chris Lott says:

    This leads to a god is dog backward epiphany where the insignificant is most significant. Meaning that significant isn’t what matters. Action and process and continuous engagement are what matters.

    In our educational zeal and significance seeking we tend to forget that even between the heaviest and most engaged intellectuals, most interactions are trivial. I love reading correspondence between my intellectual idols for just this reason– for every quotable and amazing exchange are the “trivia” that allow those amazing exchanges to happen.

    These are social tools and spaces… of COURSE the minutiae is important. Of COURSE the conversation most often winds its way around that minutiae. That’s what social beings do. And of COURSE that’s not all they do… those conversations lead to other, “deeper” engagements– the people who drift from the group table to facing chairs in the living room, the conference attendees who find themselves gesticulating wildly in the nook of the hallway outside, the students who meet and pound the table in the coffee shop, the conversations that spring up from those seeds in blogs and mailing lists and IM…

    Twitter is great for many reasons, but one of them is because it so explicitly makes this process clear… the 140 character limit and the sharing with all who are “present” makes “significant” engagement– those premeditated acts of intellectual bludgeoning– practically impossible, but being the medium that it is makes it easy to divert to other formats for engagement.

    It’s why I will always liken Twitter and Status Updates to a big group dinner table. How often does the really “important” conversation happen right there? Instead it happens all around it… but the dinner table conversation in all its forms is what enables the rest, what we remember and what we come back for.

    It’s freakin’ conversation! It’s what makes the intellectual world go ’round and what our students desperately need. And I’m not even getting into how such conversations allow our subconscious to work, allow for peripheral engagement and connections, create and sustain intellectual resonances that transcend our puny material models based on the macro physical world…

  9. Reverend says:


    This leads to a god is dog backward epiphany where the insignificant is most significant.

    Now have you been ready Joyce? And how would I know that without Twitter? Bravo! Beautifully said, as always. And I could actually breath a sigh of relief after getting the gist of the comment, why does your insane intellectual prowess scare me so? 🙂

  10. It does bring up a paradox, though. We (or at least I) build my social network connections based on where my interests and experiences intersect with others. And yet, as you say, a majority of my interactions with these people have little to do with our commonalities.
    Logic would dictate that if I wanted to have conversations about things other than education, I’d connect with people outside my field. But, I guess, what part of social networking is based on logic?
    I think a big part of the need for the inane comes from our desire to build our network into a 3-dimensional world. Connecting with someone simply because we are educators is good. Connecting because we are educators who like bacon and are willing to admit it is better because strengthens and reinforces the bonds we share. It builds that background story that we would find easy to create in the real world but can’t quickly translate to the virtual world.

    (And in case you’re wondering, I like bacon too…and grits…yum.)

  11. Andrea says:

    Ah, like the stranger-on-a-bus syndrome. You’d tell a complete stranger about all kinds of personal issues and feelings, knowing you will most likely never see them again, but the kind of things you tell them are those that need to be said. usually to someone else.

    I think I had a piece of homemade fudge for breakfast. And a cup of tea. I can’t quite remember, I got up too early.

    Also, I have noticed that a large number of social connections I have – because of commonalities – do tend to discuss things we don’t actually have in common. Which is neat.

  12. Keira says:

    I really like this post and this idea. Yeah, what Chris said.

    I sit alone in this apartment in beautiful, beautiful Barcelona, really for the first time (H and mom asleep, B at futbol game, listening to Te Recuerdo Amanda by Robert Wyatt, tunage spat up by itunes because streaming is impossible on this shitless wi-fi network. Reading another amazingly generous post by Jim.

    It’s kind of embarrassing to quote Mother Theresa: “you can do no great things in life, only small things with great love.” Sometimes it helps me with blank pages and new people and even more tentatively, with this great, blinking screen.

    Bacon for breakfast, a piece of gravel at your feet, blinking eyes: they’re invitations to talk that are easy to say yes to. Once you do that, anything goes.

  13. Alan Levine says:

    I smiled at the effort of the original post, but I suggest the generalization is a bit sweeping to be acceptable. People respond to the silliness, to the absurdity because of the contrast it creates with the pummel onslaught of the “normal” flood of information.

    And I have a pile of similar annecdotes of larger responses to trivial posts or tweets. But to say “you can an build engagement with social media on things that are unimportant and irrelevant” I question what is the engagement- it is a short, quick hit. And to sweep equaly broad with “when you say things which, theoretically, would be interesting and useful, paradoxically, no one cares. Social media is a channel optimised for the insignificant.” is to me a gross and mis-placed generalization that sounds cute but has little meat to hang on.

    Chris knows where I stand on generalizations.

    By the way, I just scratched my elbow.

    And, the example I used pre-twitter as an example of blogging too much (and actually foreshadowed twitter) is NOW A WORDPRESS site! Yay

  14. Reverend says:

    Bacon for breakfast, a piece of gravel at your feet, blinking eyes: they’re invitations to talk that are easy to say yes to. Once you do that, anything goes.


    Wonderfully put, and it’s the invitation that I’m really missing in this equation. You’re right once we accept that, anything does go. And it is the accepting that which is such a complex phenomenon. But I do think that more times than not the actual frame can be insignificant compared with our desires. Something I don’t think always gels with our structured logic of what is significant in something as broad and general as “education.”

    I agree with you in many ways, but it’s just that sometimes a generalization like this sometimes smacks with enough truth that it begs us to think about it some more. And while I don’t think I would leave it here and suggest that’s that, I do often marvel at how many times I’ve labored over an idea or a post I found deeply significant just to find no one really cared or connected—it just went away as a larger dialogue. Whereas other times I threw something out which is just trivial and people can;t say enough about it? I don’t know why. It wasn’t scientific necessarily–at least to me, yet it seemed an invitation for so much more.

    I’m not being very circumspect here, I grant you that. But perhaps the insignificance of generalizations is what enables people to jump into conversation so freely and move from there. So you’re right that’s it’s not acceptable, but perhaps not entirely 🙂

  15. Ironically, the more I re-read this the more I am doing the very thing I’m suggesting one shouldn’t, namely prescribe a logic or push an idea.

    I agree….it’s the novel aspect of the everyday that is driving the interactions. When everyone does it, it’s no longer unique.

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  17. Ed Webb says:

    This is one of the things that makes social media threatening in some educational circles, the disarming, the surrender of institutionally-granted authority: “a conversation that we all have to disarm ourselves to some degree to enter with any kind of success and honesty.”

    But it is necessary to take that risk to enable the most powerful kinds of educational experiences, to break down the authority and then build trust, initially through trivial or non-critical interactions:

    That the media can enable more substantive exchanges once the trust has been built may be secondary – their power lies in their trust-building affordances, as do their risks.

  18. Reverend says:

    What a beautiful connection with the stream of Gardner’s always provocative conference tweeting. Relationships and trust are also built around connections like these, the ability to bring people and ideas together seamlessly is a whole ‘nother element of this complex world of social media.

  19. Your thoughts are beginning to unravel a bit more here. So let’s strip away the technology for a moment, can we simply equate this to the value of “small talk”?

    It’s s social norm that most of us use, not only to establish trust and helps us sniff out who we want to hang with and who we don’t, but because we like it.

    We also as Chris alludes to can sense the conversations that might lie close to the surface but are waiting for the opportune time and place to emerge.

    Not sure if that sheds anymore light but I benefited from this conversation.

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