Twitter, Functional Fixedness, and MacGyver

In December 2009 I swore off social media. In a blaze of quasi-Luddite glory I defriended all my Facebook friends, untagged every photo, deleted all my information, and deactivated my account. I didn’t just leave–I left nothing to return to. I was free from Facebook, and my achievement was met with approving nods and impressed gasps of disbelief from family and friends who just couldn’t pull the plugs on their own accounts, even if they really wanted to.

Facebook was the only social media I had been on at the time. I knew of Twitter, but I’d never used it. I knew that people used it to give AIM-esque status updates–boring sentences describing the basic events of their day. I dismissed Twitter as frivolous, and I continued to stay off social media for about three years afterwards.

Last June I opened a Twitter account (@jshurd4). I’m not sure exactly why, but I think that joining the rethinkED team was the main motivator. I started by following the same people that @rethinkedteam was following, and eventually began thinking of others to follow. Friends, companies, and figures who I thought might guide me to great articles. Today, I find the best articles I read by looking on Twitter. I’ll read anything that education writer Daniel Willingham (@DTWillingham) posts, anything that Annie Murphy Paul (@anniemurphypaul) writes, anything that Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) blogs about. Twitter might make me a bit less discerning about some things, but it’s certainly made me better informed about education, politics, and lots of other stuff going on around the world.

But this post isn’t meant to be an encomium of Twitter. I don’t think the service needs my endorsement (I only have 60 followers, after all). My point here is that I had for a long time dismissed Twitter, not because of what it was so much as because of how I thought people used it. I never stopped and asked myself, “What is Twitter? What could it enable me to do?” Instead, I just thought that it was a frivolous way to keep others updated about the minutiae of your daily life. That’s what I’d heard, and that was my judgment.

So often we miss things that are staring us right in the face because we never really look very closely or think very hard about what we encounter. Our expectations cloud our perception, and we develop what psychologists call “functional fixedness.” If we want to see new uses for things and create new ways of seeing the world, we have to look at things for what they are, see the component parts, and not pass a fixed judgment on all the little details we uncover. Tony McCaffrey, of UMass – Amherst, has developed a “generic-parts technique” to help people overcome functional fixedness when solving problems. For example, if we call the string in a candle a “wick,” we are giving it a fixed function. If, however, we see it as “string,” then we might see uses for it that we would otherwise have passed right over. You know one guy who always rose above functional fixedness? MacGyver.

When we’re in a rush to solve a problem, the last thing we might want to do is take extra time to stop, slow down our minds, and take in all the little details one by one. But isn’t that worth it if it helps us reach a better solution? This all goes back to my current interest in uncovering assumptions. There’s always value in asking ourselves what we might be missing. If a solution seems too easy, then it probably is, and there’s probably a better one to be found.

Oh, yeah. And I haven’t gone crawling back to Facebook. At least not yet.

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