The Dangers of Water Skiing, Or, What Social Media is Doing to Our Reading, Writing, Thinking

Years ago, a girlfriend, nearly breathless with zeal, sent me a copy of what she said was the “hottest new publication,” a magazine called “Fast Company.” One of the article titles on the cover was something like, “Power Lunch, Elevator Style.” I thanked my friend for thinking of me, but disliked and discarded the copy before  ever opening it.

The concept of “fast” – fast company, quick lunch, slick and obsequious elevator rides, speed reading – touched a nerve in me. Why? Because unless it has to do with saving someone’s life or making dinner in less than 20 minutes, I dislike “fast.”  Or at least I’m sharply suspicious of it.


This wariness, I think, was heightened because when I got that copy of “Fast Company,” I was living in Paris, a place where lunches (and their conversations) last at least a full hour, and where dinners (and their conversations) last sometimes three. Where no respectable anyone eats while riding from floor three to fourteen, and where, in a way I can hardly describe without growing drooly, the slow lane overtakes the fast one.

It’s where taxi drivers have chunky, worn volumes of Hugo, Proust and French Symbolist poetry on their dashboards. And they read them.  (Going from the airport to downtown? Be ready for The Conversation.)

I believe in slow.  I trust gradual. I’m wired for plumbing downward or probing upward, not for skimming horizontally.  When it comes to reading, writing, and the way I keep my company, I’m a scuba diver.


Years since Paris, since my days of vetoing “Fast,” since that time when I disciplined myself to check email only once a week, (Wednesday afternoons for two hours – I know, I can hardly believe it, either), and rarely texted except to keep track of my teenagers out in a big city, I never would have dreamed of doing much of what I do today: writing this public blog, having not only a private but a professional Facebook page, T-t-t-t-weeting. Somewhere along the way, I began mastering the lite-write.

This world, in case you hadn’t noticed, is all new. It’s one made by and for water skiers! It might even breed them. In any case, I’m convinced it’s breeding water skier brains.

(This is another tangent , but don’t you wonder if this hyper-connected world also breeds extroverts? If you do, and this concerns you, read Susan Cain’s Quiet.)

The vast waters of connectivity call out for us to grab a rope, slap on some skis, and knot a cable around our waists.  This boat’s taking off like a bullet, folks, and because it’s moving at Mach speed, it demands that you skim, scroll, and ski across a spray of surfacey sound bytes.  And they have to be no more than sound bytes, of course, because we’re passing them like billboards lining the Indy 500.

E-mail is too wordy, time consuming.  So we shave it down to a phrase or two on Facebook.

FB takes too long. So we distill it to Twitter’s 140 characters.

Yet with all the social platforms we’re managing, who has time for 140 anything?

So we Instagram. Because who needs words when a snap shot paints a thousand of them?

(Or so we think.)

Others are concerned as I am.  In his utterly fascinating, The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that our brains are devolving to adapt to being dragged across the thin surface of visual image, bullet points, and maybe the occasionally well-wrought jingle.  Jaron Lanier, in You Are Not A Gadget, considers what this high pitch surface velocity does to our sense of self, our place in humanity. And here, Edan Lepucki shares the experience of disconnecting (for a spell) from social media altogether.

What can we conclude? What can I learn from the personal proof that my own brain is jumpier, more staccato, and that my spirit is more jittery, more pinball-ish since “connecting” in several directions? What’s happening if I haven’t sunk into a dense work of true literary value in months? That, over the same time, I haven’t been able to conjure a single line of poetry?

skiing water

For people who dive, water skiing can be frightening, alienating, not to mention exhausting. What if you’re the type that shrinks from gum-flapping velocity, hang-on-for-dear-life tautness, from hopping wakes at break neck speed, or zhwooping from point A to point Z?  What if you want to write a poem about – and not just whizz past – the blurred landscape?

What if you feel most alive hunkering over the majesty and potency of words, tonguing them during long stretches of stone-like silence? What if you aren’t interested only in linear efficiency (getting from point A to Z), but are more invested in making (and expanding and elaborating on) a point? What if you long to dive into the deep end and discover the magic of those compressed realms?

If we are, as some argue, evolving into beings that write and think in txt msg abbrvs, will we lose our ability to read and write and live in ever-descending spirals, probing and penetrating the Otherworld? Will we in turn lose dimensions of our humanness? If the brusque slash-and-pin-prick of an exclamation point – the punctuation mark du jour – overrules the curved concentration of a question mark, what are we heading for?

What, in your opinion, are our options, besides letting go of the social media rope altogether? But wait! What would happen if we did? Would we sink, helpless and limpid, into the water?  Into irrelevancy? Into oblivion?

scuba diving

30 thoughts on “The Dangers of Water Skiing, Or, What Social Media is Doing to Our Reading, Writing, Thinking

  1. “If the brusque slash-and-pin-prick of an exclamation point – the punctuation mark du jour – overrules the curved concentration of a question mark, what are we heading for?”
    Brilliantly put! I, too, am wondering where this technology is taking us. It saddens me to see the changes because I don’t see them as producing a better society, but a lesser one. I wrote a piece along these lines here if you’re interested –

  2. Melissa — thanks for this wonderful essay. This summer I’ve told my kids repeatedly that there’s reading and there’s reading. You know it’s bad when I resort to classroom explanations–actually using the term “sustained narrative” to try to help them understand the difference between a string of posts or tweets and a short story or novel.

    I do think that the quick, short writing of social media has some advantages — it definitely gets more, often important words out there sooner. I’m a devoted reader of many blogs and am so grateful for the technological revolution that has allowed these gifted voices to be part of my daily life — because many of these writers would never write books but have so much to share.

    But I also do see in both my kids and my students that the receiving end of the short and sweet often means that they lose their appetite for the longer and deeper. My boys have really fought me on it this summer — prompting me to have to actually assign summer reading and even to have to remind them how luxurious a thing a book — not to mention literacy — still is in our world.

    • Lovely Cactus:

      Agreed. Every point. I have had to assign reading, too, which is disheartening, but it gets that neurocircuitry trained for longer, “sustained” narrative arcs, not to mention all the advantages of building depth in vocabulary, teaching moral lessons, entering in alternate realities, increasing compassion, all that good stuff.

      Literacy=luxury, what a wise couplet.

      Thank you, and warmth, as ever. . .

  3. Thank you so much for your blog, Melissa, it is a refreshing and sometimes sobering experience to read your posts. I have a couple of comments to your blog post today. When my older sister was in high school she always got good grades on tests and exams. One time after the teacher had handed back graded papers to the students, some of my sister’s classmates asked her what grade she got. When she told them they asked her how may times she’d read in preparation for the test, since they had read several times and got a lower grade. She answered, once. She could have said, I STUDIED the text once, so I didn’t have to READ it multiple times.

    For a couple of years I have been teaching 18-30 year old students and other young adults in the Institute of Religion program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We had the first class of the fall semester last Friday. My emphasis in that introductory lesson to this years’ study was the role of the learner and the importance of not just reading, but studying, the scriptures. This year, our main course is the Book of Mormon, so I invited all present to study (not just read) from the Book of Mormon each day during the school year. From my personal experience I know the huge difference between reading a bit from the Book of Mormon each day and setting aside time to prayerfully and sincerely study that book of scripture. (Everything good in my life can be traced back to my sincere study of that book and of asking in prayer to know for myself that it is authentic holy scripture.)

    When I study without distraction, the Spirit guides and assists my learning, divine patterns and wisdom begins to reveal itself from, or as if it was from behind, the words on the page, and, as I learn by the Spirit, my mind is brought to a higher sphere of thinking, comprehension and understanding. I begin to mentally and spiritually, and, consequently, physically, work in or by the Spirit, with a wisdom and an understanding not of this world. As I am shaped and changed by this influence – this pure intelligence and wisdom from on high – and do my best to act in accordance with that learning, I see progress, peace, happiness and joy in my personal life, in my family, in my work, and in all associations. For these blessings of scripture to flow into the minds, hearts and lives of the students, or anyone, it is absolutely necessary to retain, re-learn, or learn, the art and practice of concentrated, prayerful study, because this invites the Holy Ghost, the real teacher of true religion, to teach us. Only truth confirmed to the heart by the Spirit, and conscientiously adhered to in the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical world, brings lasting inner peace and joy to individuals, families and nations. It is in that sphere all answers and solutions are to be found.

    So, to suggest one answer to your inviting question, “what are our options, beside letting go of the social media rope altogether?”: Our very good option, in our desire to participate and contribute positively in this world, is: To be quiet and peaceful and seek the will of the Lord with all our heart might, mind and strength, and then to write by the spirit of inspiration and let those who read, whether on blogs, FB, Twitter or elsewhere, read, be touched gently by that Spirit, then think, ponder, become quiet, then sober and then, seekers of true happiness themselves, prone to bless and not to demand, prone to lead by example and not to command, prone to lift others and not push down, committed to be faithful, loyal and true at all times. All good things comes from above and requires asking, seeking and knocking. If we have done this, we have the opportunity to use all available channels to inspire others to do the same, and thus we will use technology in the way and for the purpose it was intended.

    This line of scripture, quoted by President Boyd K. Packer at the April General Conference, has made a strong impression on me, and I know that I am experiencing these blessings gradually developing in my own life, something which is more precious than anything the world can offer. Here is the line: “the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever.” (Isaiah 32:17)

  4. In my most science-based apocalyptic moments, I see a future in which the cyberspace collapses into ruin along with its equally unsustainable modern physical space. And amidst all the decades, perhaps centuries, of horrendous suffering conjured by those Cassandras in labcoats, I see one palliative image: survivors among the remnant, taking shelter in the rusted hulk of that French cab, enjoying in that Boschian hell the heavens of that cabby’s book.

    Or something like that.

    The entire world is overheating in so many more ways than one. Slow reading will survive it, while little else will.

    Pardon the indulgence. And thank you for some fine writing.

    • cburell,

      A moment, please, before I can thank you. I need to catch my breath and recover from a rush of shivers.

      Can anyone out there please make a billboard out of this? A hologram, maybe, that will wrap around the moon?

      Just this, even: “rusted hulk of that French cab, enjoying in that Boschian hell the heavens of that cabby’s book.”

      Thank ME for some fine writing?

      Please come back. Soon.

  5. The irony, of course, in a world painfully and deliciously saturated with it, is that we wrote that line you quote from me precisely because of this cyberspace we both decry. It just never stops, this ride. (Well, until it does. Let’s hope that’s a long way off.)

    And I will gladly subscribe. I used to slow-blog, but my own slow scubas in Chinese history, culture, thought have shifted that writing time to reading time. Somehow reading your post made me miss those days of writing. Maybe when I retire from teaching I’ll find the time again. 🙂

    Take care.

    • I have just realized who you are! A legend among teachers where two of my children were once schooled, a person known not only for profound thinking but for exceptional thoughtfulness. My thanks to mentors like you, who model a genuine thrill not only for humanity’s driving questions, but for those who navigate their way toward answers to them.

      Always thanks.

      • If I stopped teaching I’d die of loneliness. “Expression is the need of my soul,” saith the divine cockroach archy [sic, and read his wonders here], and I share the need. Outside of this blog, I know depressingly few adults with whom soul-expression is possible–so I revel in conversations with as-yet-uncorrupted youths still capable of wondering about more than how to earn more money and status.

        And your kids, by the way, are wonderful examples of that wonderful thirst. They’re already so impressive, just three weeks in. While I’m not constitutionally capable of leaps of faith into salvation religions, I will say this: the Mormon children I’m lucky enough to have had as students stand as living testaments to something very admirable and rare inherent in that faith. Those children are almost without fail the least corrupted and most impressively human(e) and philosophically alive in my classes. So thanks for blessing me across that divide.

      • cburell and janina-

        I know that I’m popping into this (great!) exchange; just want to say I am moved by the idea of youth of any faith or persuasion or philosophical stance being ‘living testaments’ of the ability to withstand the downward drag of this world’s moral gravity. And this: “impressively human(e) and philosophically alive” is the greatest compliment a person can receive, or a parent can receive on behalf of her/his child. How I wish that more teachers embodied, were alert to, and championed such qualities!

      • Melissa, your son seems to fit the bill as well. So thoughtful on FB that I approached him as a complete stranger at school to praise what his online presence said about him. More evidence of the “special sauce” of your faith’s approach to child-rearing and family. 🙂

  6. Melissa, thank you for this well written post. I recently discovered your blog and just love it. Your post got me thinking. As a blogger, how do we find that balance of keeping the reader interested without shortchanging our craft? Is finding a way to make our point in less words a good thing? That’s what all the media-gurus are telling us (no one wants to scroll down!) But I hesitate to fully embrace that thinking, so finding your post was refreshing and affirming. Thanks for sharing your immense talent and experience with us all. And on that note: hooray for social media! (Right??) 🙂

  7. Jen – These are the questions I’ve shaped an entire “long form” post around! (Long form, I’ve been told, is anything over 300 wds. Man. I’m barely getting my knuckles loose at 300!)

    The question of “keeping attention” in blog form is troubling for many reasons, one being that blog writing is still considered by some careless writing, stream-of consciousness exhibitionism, public journaling. Youch. I will admit I once thought that. Haven’t you read dense, intellectually nourishing, well-crafted blogs? They are out there. I hope the blog’s reputation is shifting.

    Another reason “keeping attention” is tricky, is because folks generally don’t approach blogs as they approach other reading. A blog has been device-centric longer than books have been. Portable. Hand held. Possibly read while operating heavy equipment or, hmm, water skiing. Blogs (and so much of what fills the social media cloud) are written with INTERRUPTION as the underlying format: “chunk it down”; add more white; pump in more pictures; the ubiquitous bullet point format. . .Bloggers, then, have to rethink their “craft”, and see it as bite-size journalism, not literary writing. The two are different forms. And the approach to reading is different.

    While training oneself to be succinct is crucial, and the haiku is an elegant poetic form, going for the fast, interrupted read isn’t the end to writing. Don’t embrace the scroll-down, dumb-down mantra, Jen! Go out there ahead of the trend, and champion the long form! Like the maxi, I swear such fashions will swing back.

    More on that one later, Jen, in a long-form post coming your way.


    • Thank you, Melissa! I really appreciate your response–and the fact that you respond to all your readers. What a gracious act of respect for us. I’ll look forward to reading more of what you have to say on this topic–and on any other topics you address! Like I said, I’m loving your blog. Happy Labor Day weekend!

  8. I have never, ’til now, said this to you, but i am there. (yeah, i know you pay attention, you saw and perhaps fretted a little over that 1980 honda (not even a ‘civic’, there was no model name that year!) pulled off the highway, 3 feet from the slow lane, litter piling up around it. ) yep. that’d be me. no waterskiing. wha da heck izz twitter? smartphone? IM? nobody who has ever “texted me” is likely to try that again. i bailed from facebook, and WP is, usually, more my pace. yeah, i cooked a ‘meal’ in 20 min. tonight ate it alone and still am regretting it.
    one thing, tho’ … you like the dinners that take 2, 3-some hours, but in our town, if the wait staff languishes that long? it be aggravating. i suspect you know i grokt (or so i think) the essence of your lament.

    • Betunada: Can’t say I can always have a dinner that lasts 3 hours. Not these days, nope, not at all, unless it is at someone else’s invitation, and there are fancy name cards, and I am wearing something uncomfortable and shiny. 🙂 Then I try to find a way to escape by hour #2. Sorry you ate alone tonight! I hope you at least talked to your veggies. They tend to be sympathetic listeners. Especially heart-a-chokes.

      • The last time I went to an uncomfortably shiny 3-hour dinner was the last time I will ever go to a shiny 3-hour dinner.

        Why? Because I found my name-card imprisoned me between two bankers. The banker on my left discussed his admiration to the banker on my right that the latter banker’s bank had captured the ATM market share in an Indian airport. (“So this is what one sees when one travels as a banker,” I said not aloud.) A swirl of numbers, percentages, fee calculations, and other mathematical confettis filled the air for the space of several dishes chewed. Then the discussion strayed to how another banker in that city had built a billion dollar mansion blah blah blah, and how tasteless blah blah blah. Tasteless or not, a room-by-room and floor-by-floor description of said pleasure palace ensued, shiny this and shinier that, through desert. When, moments later, this delightful table-talk descended to some comment about the need, I kid you not, to line up protesters in the street and shoot them (I’d tuned out by this point to such a degree that I can’t tell you what specific protesters were in question), I excused myself for an unnecessary visit to a shiny restroom, after returning from which I sought out two teenagers for more elevated conversation.

        Seriously, true story. I only hope this is not a typical description of what passes for refined sociality among the new aristocracy. In your experience, is it? If so, a comedy of manners is begging for the writing. Where’s Oscar Wilde when you need him?

        In any case, since that evening, whenever I receive invitations for shiny 3-hour dinners, I’m amazed at how they always coincide with fabricated visits from my Korean inlaws, which regrettably prevent me from accepting. Either that, or having to see a man about a dog. Such white lies allow me to stay home and read more shiny pages from books that I know I will never find time to finish reading before I grow old and vanish.

      • Smiling broadly.

        Oscar Wilde. Or P.G. Wodehouse. Now those are some shiny pages!

        Speaking of which:

        “It was one of those parties where you cough twice before you speak and then decide not to say it after all.”
        ― P.G. Wodehouse

      • Tee hee. Great quote. (And I’ve been invited again. When it’s a student’s parents, it’s harder to say no because you care for the student. *Sigh*)

  9. It would seem that the journey between A & B is something of a relative constant yet the means to travel between those two points is ever evolving. In some respects I already feel as though I’m lagging behind. My awareness of new technologies as they come along fails to compel me significantly to want them all amoung my chattels. I have embraced the social networks, the blog sites, the countless hours of enduring mind over personal computer matter yet I cannot, WILL NOT, text, don’t know how to operate a tablet (and I’m an author writing and selling ebooks no less) and I STILL listen to the beauty of music plugged into my online music channels and YouTube etc. with a quality Sony headset. An iPod??? What???

    Gosh, I’m turning into a dinosaur at warp speed! The obsessive preoccupation with cell phones and texting makes me cringe. ‘Text Message’ has found its way into our online dictionaries already…well of course it has…OMG. Lo and behold, ‘OMG’ is as far as I go amoung a few other abbreviated social networking expletives! I see people strolling out into intersections have no clue or regard for traffic lights, couples sitting in restaurants transfixed to their phones the entire hour they are ‘together’ for that dining experience, blindly poking at their food and barely finding the strength and focus to get that fork to their mouths. How sad. How alarming.

    So is dinosaur so bad? It’s like standing on a narrow ledge attempting to navigate that sheer mountain face while precariously, and perilously, surviving the rush and risk suspended by ‘surfacey sound bytes’ in a virtual world. I do try to keep up in this warp speed world though life seems a tightrope transition strung over ominous crevasses as deep as cyberspace is wide.

    I sense current technologies are mere stepping stones to greater purpose and destination. That ‘rope’ is our lifeline in a sense and our navigation through the maze. The future holds methods and means as yet unimaginable. The magic of words and how we communicate may be in perpetual motion though life in its continuum will forever remain our story to tell by whatever means…the journey from A to B our uncertainty, our fear and best of all our lasting inspiration.

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