08/27/14

Social media and social dialogue


Angry at social media
A recent poll done by Pew Research reiterated what I’ve been saying for the past two years: social media (SM) doesn’t necessary facilitate social debate and in fact may be stifling it. Discussion on many SM platforms tends to reinforce existing beliefs because in general only those who feel their beliefs are shared by their circle of “friends” or followers will express them. It’s called the “spiral of silence.”

The Pew report noted:

…social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues. Further, if people thought their friends and followers in social media disagreed with them, they were less likely to say they would state their views… Previous research has shown that when people decide whether to speak out about an issue, they rely on reference groups—friendships and community ties—to weigh their opinion relative to their peers… Those who do not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agree with their opinion are more likely to self-censor their views…

When social media emerged as a concept or platform that could be labelled* it was hailed as the new tool for social engagement, the panacea for flagging social interaction in many spheres like politics, education and government. And for a while, it was.

But that proved not to be the case any more than previously existing platforms (forums and list servers). In fact, for many who embraced it, social media proved more of a liability (think Anthony Weiner).

Blogger Raed El-Younsi blames the technology as at least partially responsible for the way we interact online. He wrote:

The internet gives us an unprecedented opportunity to understand one another. And yet anyone familiar with internet “discussion” boards knows that NOISE, group think and personal attacks can drown out most attempts at constructive dialogue. (For an extreme example, try discussing politics or religion in the YouTube comments.)
Similarly, the recent U.S. Government shutdown is a visible symptom of a much deeper trend: the polarization of our global society, online and offline…
Going into online discussion boards often means going into “hostile” territory and, as such, it can be a risky proposition. People often resort to attacks out of boredom, to be seen, or to “rally the troops” and win the numbers game. Strategically, our options are usually fight or flight – aggression or avoidance.

I have written in the past that it’s equally because we see the Internet as ours and respond to things online as if they were a threat to our personal property. It’s our computer, our modem, our house, our phone or cable bill, our wireless router… of course it’s our internet, too. And we respond to anyone who dissents or offers different ideas as we would a home invader or trespasser: with aggression. (Read the signs of narcissism here: listening only to dismiss; feeling the rules don’t apply to you; quick to anger; refusal to take responsibility; inability to take criticism.)

The notion of digital democracy at first suggested a great step forward. After all, what’s to dislike about free speech, freedom of expression, free exchange of ideas and open debate without borders? That quickly proved naive. The new social media proved an easier platform for the expressions of ideology than an exchange of ideas – just as the old forms had been. And in these situations, people who offered alternate or conflicting positions often found themselves denounced, attacked, insulted and vilified; their ideas or comments drowned out in a sea of vituperation. Instead of civil debate or an intelligent exchange of ideas, often these threads degenerated into a race to see who could type the nastiest rejoinder soonest.

Social networking sites (SNS) opened a whole new venue for harassment and spawned a neologism: cyberbullying.**

One recent poll suggests 25% of Americans have been harassed, bullied or threatened online and 62% of those had been harassed on Facebook. Some writers have suggested countermeasures, but these seem not to have gained much traction yet:

While keeping in mind that this is a self-reporting survey, the findings nevertheless illustrate the seriousness of online harassment and attacks, and the fact that people are increasingly becoming disenchanted with the negative behavior they experience.
We know online harassment and attacks are a huge social problem. We know they are a huge social GLOBAL problem. And it’s up to all of us to help turn things around.
While the steps needed to make this happen aren’t simply or easy, and also won’t solve the problem overnight, they will be concrete actions towards creating a positive cultural shift in online communication.

Free speech in social media does not come with any sense of responsibility, just narcissistic entitlement. People feel they have the right to comment on anything, in any manner, for any reason, regardless of their involvement in the issue, understanding of the idea, or respect for the feelings and rights of the others. Look what happens when some “hot-button” issues are broached – look at the angry back-and-forth over gun control or abortion.

Strangers can enter the fray, too, and anonymous posters can sling mud and spew invective at the original poster. It is difficult enough to argue with people you know or work with but generally much more polite and engaging; arguing with violent strangers or angry cowards hiding their identities through pseudonyms quickly makes people reluctant to engage.

Compounding it is the sheer number of people who can participate almost simultaneously: the confusion of multiple comments can turn what began as a discussion into a cacophony. A mob mentality that takes over and users on one side gang up to batter the outsider or dissenter into submission to the group mind – it’s called “seal clubbing.”

When ideology enters the fray – particularly political or religious – there is often no real civil debate on social media, but there is clearly intolerance as opposing sides batter away at each other.

And it doesn’t seem to be getting better: the Pew report found people are more willing to self-censor themselves on social media than among friends and co-workers. Based on earlier studies done by the organization, this suggests to me that the initial enthusiasm with which many people embraced social media has been curbed by the actions/words of the users themselves.
Continue reading

01/17/14

Crossing the line


HuffPostThere’s a story on ipolitics that in part echoes my own thoughts about media and responsibility. Yet the author draws different conclusions than I believe I would have, were I still in the media.

It’s called “Paul Calandra and the tale of the naked senator” and it’s written by Paul Adams. Worth reading regardless of whether you agree or not.

Adams writes about the quandary many reporters and editors find themselves in: trying to define the boundary between public interest and privacy. It’s an issue that has raised its head many times in the past, but moreso this past year.

This debate must have raged (or at least I hope it raged) in the editorial offices of the Toronto Star in late 2013, when the paper decided to release a video of Mayor Ford - apparently intoxicated and raging – that clearly had nothing to do with Ford’s political office or his abilities. And, since there was no way to identify the context of of Ford’s comments, the viewer had no way to tell who he was ranting about, even if it was a real person rather than a TV show character.

The Star itself admitted:

The target of the mayor’s anger in the video is not in the room and is not known to the Star.

yet it ran the video with a lengthy story to accompany it.

To me, the Star opened a Pandora’s box. If the mayor has no private life outside his office when he is not in the public eye, then should that be true, too, for the Star’s staff? If it is fair to show a video of a private moment (surreptitiously recorded in someone’s home, not a public place), then why would it not be equally (and morally) correct to show videos of TorStar editors and reporters at their worst?

The argument is often made that elected politicians represent their office 24/7, so they have no private persona when in office, just a public face. But is that not also true of police? Of doctors? Pilots? In fact, we associate most people with their jobs and their social positions regardless of the time of day, or their location. They represent their position, their employer 24/7, even when not in the job, just like politicians. Thanks to social media, we have no clear definition of private and public lives.*

If our personal behaviour reflects on our roles and jobs no matter whether we are in our office, in private, on our Facebook page, in a restaurant or on a golf course, so it must be equally true of the media. After all, can a reporter stop being a reporter or representing the paper he/she works for  when out of the office any more than a mayor stop being a mayor? I don’t think so. That’s one reason why the Star should have been reluctant to release the video.

But the real reason is discretion. What purpose does such sleaze serve? is there a greater good in ridiculing and embarrassing the mayor over a private matter? All it does is smear the city’s reputation worldwide, make the entire city the butt of ridicule. And discredit the Star.

Adams says the parliamentary press corp has,

“A highly developed prurient interest coupled with a equally powerful culture of discretion about what should be shared with the Canadian people.”

That should be refreshing, but I doubt it’s a sentiment shared among all journalists, as the TorStar video release shows. In fact, I’d suggest that it wasn’t discretion at all, but rather partisan politics that made the media act as it did in Adam’s tale of two events.

Continue reading

11/26/13

Six Rules for Politicians Using Social Media



This is an updated version of the talk I presented at the the eighth annual Municipal Communication Conference in Toronto, November 2013.

 

I use social media regularly and frequently. As a politician, that makes me either very brave or very stupid. But I’ve been doing this for the last 30 years, long before I ever got elected. Social media isn’t new to me.*

It may be slicker than it was in 1983, but it’s essentially the same text-based, monologue, just with chrome added. In fact, the tone of the conversation seems to have gone downhill since the 80s.

Back then it was mostly computer geeks like, so we were more of a community. Geek-to- geek wasn’t so adversarial, unless of course, you were arguing the relative merits of the Z80 versus the 6502 processor.

Today people debate about such important issues as Kim Kardashian’s cat, the name of a royal baby, or the recent favourite, Millie Cyrus’s backside.**

Today’s great technological advancement seems to be the consummate ease by which you can attach pictures of kittens or puppies to your posts.

Technology has improved our ability to share those photos with thousands, even millions of people. But it hasn’t made us better communicators.

Some technology actually rewards illiteracy. Twitter. For example, encourages us to cram our language into abbreviations and codes. It turns language into hieroglyphics.

Sure it can help social change. But how much is debated. Everyone points to how the Arab Spring was abetted by Twitter and Facebook. But I suspect a lot of the Arab Spring tweets went like this: “We’re overthrowing the government today. What are you wearing?”

Anthony WeinerSo when anyone in politics or municipal government asks me how to approach social media, I tell them two words:

Anthony Weiner.

I tell them there are six lessons you can learn from Anthony Weiner about social media.

Everyone knows who he is, of course. Weiner single handedly turned sexting from a minor act done by over-heated teens, to front page headline activity.The media were full of the stories about how this US congressman tweeted pictures of his underwear-clad crotch to young women around the country.

It was monumentally stupid and puerile. Weiner had to resign from Congress over the scandal. It hurt his career. And maybe his marriage. But on the grand scheme of things, it was harmless. He wasn’t Edward Snowden or Juilan Assange after all.

It really wasn’t anything more than a lack of good judgment or common sense. We’re all guilty of that. We all screw up now and then. That’s just human nature.

But Weiner was a politician. And politicians get held to a higher standard than, say, your neighbour or your cousin. If they did it, you’d probably just shrug it off. But when a politician or a civil servant is involved, the sky is falling.

At least that’s what the media tells us.

When I was in newspapers, media were the sole gatekeepers of information. We controlled how the public received it. Everyone looked to us. We had standards about what we published, and we were respected for them.

Today, there are tens of thousands of accessible sources online. Traditional media scrambles for your attention. In order to compete with Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, they sensationalize just about everything.

Continue reading

11/17/13

We have heading up for your net


Spam cartoonI have to admit that I frequently read the spam comments WordPress traps for my moderation, and I often do so with a smile. The clumsy, crazy constructs, the awkward English, butchered punctuation and the twisted word use just make me laugh.

Yes, like everyone else, I detest spam, and I quickly delete the comments into whatever digital wastebin they descend to. But I often chuckle to read them first. They make me wonder: are they deliberately written poorly, are they the sincere efforts of someone struggling to learn English, words strung together in random order by a bot, or are they the result of some Google translation gone awry?

Some have question marks which suggest symbols from other languages that didn’t get through the translation process. or are they just machine constructs dropping in characters at random?

This one is a good example, taken from today’s lot waiting for the delete button:

Of training course exceptional post. We have heading up for your net. Usually publish with your very own encounter and share. Oh! really grateful.

Some read like odd poetry, if you parse them so. Take the above, for example and write it thus:

Of training course exceptional post.
We have heading up for your net.
Usually publish with
your very own encounter
and share.
Oh!
really grateful.

Okay, not great poetry. Reads like computer-generated poetry, though, doesn’t it?

Continue reading

10/27/13

Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism


Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

Continue reading

10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

Continue reading