Facebook users beware (and sometimes, be silent)

Social Media Dynamics. Graphic: Mark Smiciklas, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Social Media Dynamics. Graphic: Mark Smiciklas, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

In the world of media, there is an astonishing, new(ish) revolution underway that moves us as a society away from the top-down version of mass communication that has defined our society since the advent of the printing press.

As recently as a decade ago, Americans mostly listened or watched or read their media.  They were consumers.  They were the audience.

But these days, and this is a good thing, we’re all participating in a form of mass media in ways that no one yet fully understands.

From Facebook to blogs to LinkedIn to that email chain you have with old college friends, we’re all talking at least as much as we listen.

I say this is a good thing because in the old days people like me (and people a lot, lot more influential and widely read than me) held most of the cards.

Media types controlled the topic of discussion and the tone of dialogue.  There was a lot of laziness, and some astonishing abuses of power.

There’s a reason that journalists are hated almost as much as trial lawyers and members of congress.

These days, just about anybody can launch an idea into at least their small, local social networks that can exercise wide influence, shaping how people think about everything from a local village council race to the produce at their farmer’s market.

The horizontality of media also allows you (and me) to talk back to big media.

When someone writes an article on the New York Times or NCPR website, I can join in the debate, offering my thoughts, and my critique of the reporter’s work.

I’ve seen numerous cases where this kind of social-network-fact-checked-crowd-sourcing has made journalists better, more accountable, and more understanding about the impact of their work.

But I think a lot of new mass media users are also learning first hand why this business isn’t easy to get right.  When you start talking to a lot of people, you gain power.  A whisper can become a howl.  A bit of gossip can become a life-changing event.

With that power comes responsibility.  And the last couple of months, I’ve had the sense that most users don’t really get that, at least not yet.

On my own social media networks, I’ve seen people accusing one-another — by name, and sometimes with photographs attached — of being animal abusers, meth heads, professionally unethical, bad parents, and alcoholics.

In most cases, there was very little effort to do the kinds of things that most media professionals would consider an absolute must.  Like, checking your facts.  Like, getting both sides of the story.  Like, attempting to remove your own bias from the discussion.

Taken to extremes, this kind of social-media-gone-wrong can lead to painful places.  Cyber-bullying has been over-hyped lately, but it’s a real phenomenon.

A lot of professional media sites, including the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and Popular Science, have begun sharply limiting feedback and discussion because so much of it was uncivil and factually wrong.  So much so that it skewed people’s understandings of reality.

And a lot of the on-line discourse that’s out there — on blogs, Facebook, and other networks — is just plain vicious.  Especially when it comes to political discussion, a lot of the horizontal debate is wretched.

I’ve complained before about the conspiracy theories and end-times screeds that circulate in my own media community, most of them debunked long-ago, yet reposted by folks who can’t be bothered to think a bit before adding more noise to the echo chamber.

So at risk of sounding like an old-school media guy who just wants to monopolize the conversation, here’s my suggestion:  Keep it to yourself.

Before you post to a media network, pretend for just a moment that you’re about to speak on a TV show, or be interviewed for the newspaper.

Imagine that the words you’re about to add to the dialogue are ones that everyone will hear.  They are words that may just change people’s lives, affect their businesses, influence their standing in church, in school, in the wider community.

Are you sure those words are true?  Are you sure they’re helpful in some way?  And do you feel comfortable with their potential impact?

If not, then do what I do as an experienced old-media guy.  Rather than go wide with your gossip or your blather or your half-baked muddled opinion, chatter to your spouse.  Or your mom.

Or write in your diary.  Or mutter to yourself while chopping wood.  Now that you’re a broadcaster, you have the power to speak, but also the obligation to sometimes hold your tongue.

13 Comments on “Facebook users beware (and sometimes, be silent)”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Brian, I am happy to say (to the best of my not so great knowledge, that I don’t share your “social media networks.”To tell the truth, I hardly ever look at what is going on with my “friends” on Facebook. Same for twitter.
    It is a shame they are often used to bully and spread rumors.
    Here all I try to do is throw out an idea or a point of view that might not be considered.

  2. wakeup says:

    Brian –
    Recently in the ADE a couple letters were written about a candidate for coroner that wrote some distasteful things in his FB page. That aside it lead me to visit the SLPD Facebook page. On the police department page they use it as a blotter AND allow people to comment.

    My question is why would the police department allow people to comment on arrests? Seems like a pretty stupid move to me.

  3. The Original Larry says:

    Opinions may be muddled or half-baked, but as long as they are not presented as fact, they ought to be respected for what they are.

  4. laurie says:

    One of the problems with social media is that opinions ARE very often presented as fact. It’s a fine line that I see crossed multiple times a day.

  5. Philip Williams says:

    Brian, you didn’t mention that many of the comments we see posted, were posted by a “paid poster” – who is an employee who posts as part of his job. Fox News was recently exposed for this. Some of these folks had twenty different screen names. I am personally convinced that many other thousands of posters were hired during the recent election by the right wing to post, post and post, and to generate this crazy (and factually false) emails about Obama and “not a Christian nation” and “repainting Air Force one” and “cancelling the National Day of Prayer”. I think that the “left wing” probably did very little of this – would take a long time to explain but essentially I have concluded that folks who are drawn to the right wing are generally intellectually uncurious, rigidly religious, stoked up on fear, anger, envy and half-fact by Rush, Fox News, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and are beyond any rational re-examination of their own opinions nor even any independent investigation of the facts.

    As to the public “hating” journalists, I think the Fox News is the one organization in this country which has done the most to legitimize “hating” as acceptable. People may have a generally negative view of a particular profession, but then will say “but I love my lawyer…. editor….. doctor….. congressman” because they know him or her as a person.

  6. Ellen B says:

    I was going to leave a comment here, but I decided to hold my tongue. ;)

  7. The Original Larry says:

    It’s nice to see that the paranoia isn’t confined to the “right wing.”

  8. Bill Haenel says:

    Social is social. Media is media. Right?

    Social is when I sit around the table with my pals having a beer and playing some poker, telling jokes, having conversation, privately in my home. Media is when I go outside my private walls and absorb public information, provided to me by public sources, vetted by professionals whose job it is to gather and distribute (hopefully) factual information. Those two concepts, social and media, are only supposed only come together when my poker party goes public, say, because the party got really out of hand and we burned my house down, and the local news reported on it (what a party!), or if we turn on the TV and watch a hockey game while we play five-card.

    And gossip? You know, the public and very social distribution of information that was intended to be private, by non-professional media people, about people’s lives and habits and relationships and activities and etc.? Well that’s something you can pick up at the diner over coffee or buy in a magazine by the gum stand at the grocery store, and most of it is BS.

    At least, this is how I understood it all when I was growing up.

    Now the guy sitting to my right is Facebooking his straight flush, complete with photos of me crying in my beer after having lost my paycheck to his luck, and the guy to my left won’t stop talking about what his “crazy neighbors and their dog and their chickens” are up to as he reads their Twitter tweets, when all we really want him to do is shut it and play his frickin’ hand. And it’s a good thing the weather is cold, ’cause if it was warmer we might play outside, where my buddy’s new personal drone is up in the sky watching the whole game (think of the possibilities for cheating if you had your own personal drone!).

    Those dividing walls between private and public get thinner all the time, in so many ways and in so many forums. We mix private and public more and more, voluntarily and involuntarily, and it appears that this trend isn’t going to shift any time soon. Seems like this is something that we’re physically, but maybe not psychologically ready for.

    The good news is that it looks as though our kids have learned how to do all this better than we have. They were born with it.

  9. michael owen says:

    you said it yourself Brian “So at risk of sounding like an old-school media guy who just wants to monopolize the conversation, here’s my suggestion: Keep it to yourself.”

    You need to join the world. I can’t see the value of limiting discussions just because they are crap. The crap gets boxed out by other contributors. You are just experiencing some growing pains. I predict you will emerge from your cocoon of power as the butterfly we know you have within your current caterpillar.

  10. The Original Larry says:

    “I think the Fox News is the one organization in this country which has done the most to legitimize “hating” as acceptable.”

    For real? Where did all the hate come from before you had Fox News to blame?

  11. Philip Williams says:

    Original Larry,

    Hating was all home-made prior to it becoming “main stream” with Fox’s News. It became acceptable once it was on every night, all the time.

    You may recall that originally, broadcast rights were federally governed under a “fairness” doctrine. That doctrine required making time available for any other side.

    A major Supreme Court case ruled that cable was not subject to the “fairness” doctrine and eventually it was rescinded by FCC in the 90s.

    One of the amusing things about Fox news is how it refers to everyone else as the “mainstream media”… as if the owner of the Wall Street journal (parent company News Corp, who also owned Fox till recently) and Fox, holder of exclusive right to World Series, were NOT mainstream media. Fox blythely assumes its target audience of bigots in training will not run some numbers or do any independent checking. Most of its watchers don’t, of course. Most of them are not, for example, even aware that the Ben Ghazi reporting of
    Fox has come unraveled along with 60 Minutes segment on the same.

    But getting back to the them of Brian’s article, I just don’t post anywhere unless I can use my real name. I rarely post here because of the cutesy names used on the posts.

  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Hey, that “cutesy name” bit hurts! In defense of anonymity I don’t feel that using my “real” or legal name here is of any great benefit. I do use the name others call me on other sites – places that are either based very local to me, or conversely places where using my name would leave me essentially anonymous. Either way, the NSA can figure out who I am.

    But I was actually going to make a different comment.

    The flip side of this discussion is that there are services people of means use to rid the internet of their names and personal information to the extent that is possible. It is interesting that while the masses are flooding the digital universe with information the elites are washing the web of their digital DNA. It may be that the power of old media and social media together will be crushed by noise canceling technology of the .01%.

  13. mervel says:

    The flip side to this revolution is that all points of view are diminished, just more internet “noise” just more junk in the endless massive flow of what is often a filthy hateful stream of nothing. When there is no discretion when all points of view are thrown into this giant pot, maybe none are remembered or as impacting as before. The tyranny of the mob is no better than the tyranny of the dictator.

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