February 4, 2011

Why Henry David Thoreau Would Have Hated Social Media

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A statue of Thoreau...uploading photos of geese to Facebook with an iPhone?
I was lucky enough to grow up just a short drive from Walden Pond -- Thoreau's old stomping grounds -- where I would go to cross country ski in the winter or to try to catch fish in the summer. "Try" because the pond has zero fish to offer anglers (or at least to offer me). I'm convinced Thoreau caught them all during his well-documented stay in the woods surrounding Walden Pond, which lasted from July 1845 to September 1847. During this stay, when he wasn't observing animals, chopping wood or ruining the pond for future generations of New England fishermen, Thoreau thought lengthily on the topics of society and politics. His magnum opus, Walden, also known as Life in the Woods, laid out many of these thoughts in incredibly stylized language, which is rich in metaphor, allegory, hyperbole and enchantingly long and and descriptive sentences.

And while many scholars and activists have utilized Thoreau's philosophies for advancing or legitimizing social and political movements, like passive resistance or libertarianism,  suggesting -- in so many words -- that "this is what Thoreau would have wanted,"  I've decided to take the opposite approach. This post will show why Thoreau would have hated or disapproved of a particular movement, specifically the popularization of social networks and other forms of social media. Of course, there is no way of knowing for sure what aspects of the modern world Thoreau would have liked or disliked. As Professor Ann Woodlief poignantly notes, "His work is so rich, and so full of the complex contradictions that he explored, that his readers keep reshaping his image to fit their own needs."

Don't you hate when people do that?

Nature Vs. Twitter

Henry David Thoreau would not have followed you on Twitter. His views on life implored him to march to the beat of his own drummer, not to follow drummers around, waiting for them to share their thoughts with him and potentially hundreds or thousands of other followers. Thoreau's objective in those Walden woods was to discover the truth about the complexities of life and the world through inward reflection and the observation of nature: a feat that required him to block out all of the other versions of "truth" that society propagated.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's mentor  (and landlord) wrote of Thoreau; "He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted...he chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature." It seems clear that the guy didn't like being a part of social groups, nor does it seem likely -- considering his philosophical views -- that he would have entertained the prospect of publicly declaring himself a follower of a particular person, band or business. Thoreau was a follower of nature.

By the way, feel free to follow me on Twitter: @TheBardOfBoston.

Transcendental Upgrade: Henry David 2.0?

To make social media accessible to Thoreau we'd either have to A.) raise him from the dead, B.) transport him -- alive -- from the past to the future or C.) travel back in time and bring him our modern technology. Assuming that one of these highly likely scenarios unfolded and Thoreau gained access to a computer, smart phone or other Internet-ready device -- and knew how to use it -- would he have used it? Would he have made the upgrade from Henry David Thoreau to Henry David 2.0? He sure upgraded his facial hair a lot, but that is neither here nor there (although I did put it down here for a fun visual).

Beard-less Thoreau
Bottom-bearded Thoreau
Grizzly-bearded Thoreau
Based on Thoreau's writings, it does not seem likely that he would have used the advanced devices that allow us to access social media. Such devices are, after all,  mere conveniences....right?  Just like Thoreau could survive without a shaving blade, you could, theoretically, survive without the Internet. You could still breath and eat and seek shelter in a cave, if necessary.

Thoreau wrote, "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." Modern conveniences, in Thoreau's eyes, are drains on our humanity, as they keep us from associating with -- and finding meaning in -- the natural world. Think about it: anytime you peer into the online world, you look away from the natural world surrounding you. When you gain knowledge from the blogosphere, Twittersphere or the social media sphere in general, you miss opportunities to learn from yourself and from nature.

 Too Much Media / Too Many Members

"I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude,
two for friendship, three for society." - Thoreau

Imagine Thoreau, sitting at his computer, pouring over hundreds of blog posts in his RSS feed, chatting with or reading about hundreds of friends on Facebook, hitting that Stumble! button on his StumbleUpon toolbar hundreds and hundreds of times...  I cannot imagine such scenarios. Assuming that Thoreau ignored his contempt for technology and gave social media a try, he likely would have found the sheer numbers associated with social media unfathomable. After all, Thoreau is the guy who wrote, "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail."

While social networks, like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn make it easy to keep tabs on hoards of people; and social news, social bookmarking and social measuring sites, like Digg, Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon and Technorati make it easy to monitor endless pages of content; at what point does online socializing and media-seeking become too much? I think Thoreau would have seen an inherent information-overload in social media, which would have been at odds with his simplistic lifestyle. Also, it is doubtful that he would have enjoyed socializing with an online congregation of people. While Thoreau was sociable, he preferred one-on-one social interactions, which allowed him to give his full attention to the person he was socializing with.

On The Subject of Jibber-Jabbery

Wikipedia's dictionary wiki, Wiktionary, defines jibber jabber as "excessive or meaningless talk." To use it in a sentence: Much of the crap you read on a Facebook news feed is mindless jibber jabber. Or, to quote Mr. T, "Cut out the jibber jabber, don't be babbling like a fool."

Of course, the social media sphere has lots of valuable information to offer, but at the same time, it is loaded with jibber jabber. If you have ever read a Tweet that said something along the lines of "OMG! My new boots are sooo awesome," or "I just drank 37 beers," you have experienced social media jibber jabber. Apart from Thoreau's views on materialism and alcohol consumption, I think he would have hated such posts because they do not contribute anything to culture or society. When people write just because they want to be heard, it is an empty gesture, as they are not drawing from their life experiences and knowledge to provide others with value or meaning. Thoreau touched on this sentiment when he wrote, "How vain is it to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."

 How Social Media Could Have Helped Thoreau

When Thoreau finished writing Walden, no one wanted to buy it. There was no buzz. Instead of touring North America and beyond, signing copies of his book and promoting his philosophies, Thoreau stayed in Concord and supported himself by working as a surveyor, giving a few local lectures and making pencils (which was the family business). With the help of social media, Thoreau could have -- in his lifetime -- turned Walden into what David Meerman Scott refers to as a "world wide rave."

One social medial tool that Thoreau could have used for exposing Walden to a global audience is a blog. With a blog, Thoreau could have provided background information on the book and his philosophies-at large, while also allowing fans -- and foes -- to discuss and debate topics via the blog's comments section. Thoreau himself could have also contributed to the conversation. Using social networks, Thoreau could have provided friends or followers with tidbits of knowledge, while also providing links to his blog. By indexing his online content in social media libraries like StumbleUpon, Thoreau could have helped make sure his philosophies reached targeted audiences, such as people interested in naturalism or transcendentalism.

Further Reading:
The Literature Network: Henry David Thoreau
Virginia Commonwealth University: Henry David Thoreau
The Benefits and Downfalls of Social Media Websites
Home Business Opportunities Blog
David Meerman Scott: World Wide Rave


  1. I pity the fool who does not appreciate simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.
    Dr. Albie Dark

  2. A concise and well written article using technology to rebut its own usefulness. Great humor and insight into the life and mind of Thoreau, a man whose philosophy about what is important we might all do well to revisit.

  3. When grown men are on the phone as much as 14-year-old girls used to be 30 years ago, then you know we have become a frivolous, time-wasting bunch of nitwits. Social media, in a country that used be unusually jealous of individual privacy, is another stupid addiction.

    The technology that allows this is nice to have, but then so is a credit card. Having a credit card doesn't mean we have to run up the charges until we max out, does it? So why do we think we have to blabder nonsense incessantly?

  4. Kejimkujik National Park i'm official in 1967 AND covers 381 sq kms on the western interior of Nova Scotia. the park will be the inland wilderness with forest streams, lakes ALONG WITH islands. the wildlife AS WELL AS flora are abundant because of its high rainfall for the area, often flooding your streams IN ADDITION TO lakes on the spring. Spruces and firs