Undoing The Social Media Revolution

It was cold. We had just left a lovely seafood dinner overlooking Elliot Bay in Seattle and the wind picked up. I put my wife’s jacket on her and I stepped out from underneath the building overhang.

“Hey, it stopped raining!”

It was good news for a December night. I grabbed her hand and we walked briskly down the damp Seattle sidewalks toward the symphony hall. In a few minutes, we’d be listening to Handel’s choral masterpiece Messiah.

As the symphony opened, I slowly started to realize that we were having one of our best weekends ever at home and I was feeling guilty for it.

You see, this happened the day before. It’s unbelievably tragic and the twisted nature of the whole event still makes me sick and leaves me with a lot of unresolved questions.

Right after it happened, Twitter, Facebook, and the media went into overdrive. After about an hour, I checked out of Facebook and Twitter. I followed some of the news on cable but they were doing an awful job.

My wife works four days a week so we were discussing it since she was home. We probably discussed it for over an hour. We don’t have kids but we are close to a few little ones. And we have a multitude of friends and family who are teachers, almost all at the elementary level.

I peeked my head in to Twitter once or twice over the weekend. Same thing with Facebook. And I’m glad that’s all I did. It was distressing and the response made me question the social revolution altogether.

My friend Laurie wrote a great post about it that mirrored my thoughts nearly completely. In it, she says:

After the shootings in Newtown, I wonder if social media plays any positive role. All the early news reports were wrong. My friends and colleagues responded swiftly to the tragedy by posting commentary and pictures of their children on Facebook. Some offered poems. Others offered prayers. Many are now descending into stupid political battles.

At an important time like this, what the universe demands is action. I looked at my own aggregated newsfeed and felt like a shared article or a picture on my timeline would not do any good. And for those in my life who might actually know someone who was injured, I worried that my own personal expression of sadness — mixed in with shoddy news reporting — might do some harm.

And there it is. Read the whole thing, though.

Of course, social media takes its toll on more than just tragedies. I think about how everyone seemed ground down by the election, the debates and nine months of bullshit advertising and news reporting. Social media made it worse. I’m not afraid to have a frank discussion on politics but doing it in 140 character sound bites is more aggravating than anything.

People wonder what the relevance of blogging is in an age of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram? Thought. Real, actual thought before you share them with the world. Not sound bites, not sharing a funny picture, not a short update for friends and family or some rumor or innuendo that takes two seconds to send out.

The same thoughtlessness that the media displayed in trying to be first rather than being right in such a critical story is the same sort of thoughtlessness that goes into sharing articles that you don’t know are vetted or retweeting information that is uncorroborated.

The media should know better and it was a shameful display.

But if we are going to talk about a social media revolution though, we should talk about what kinds of responsibilities that holds with it. That means you can’t share a Morgan Freeman quote without verifying it first. That means you can’t share an untruthful image with a description of what issues the murderer had without understanding and knowing that for a fact. It also means you think about empathy, respect, timing and appropriateness of your message before you post it.

Right now, the media is in a confused and awful state. They don’t know how to handle day-to-day news, much less tragedies like this. And when I opened Twitter and Facebook, what I saw wasn’t a replacement for the media and it wasn’t a revolution in any way. It was an angry, frightened, sad, confused and, ultimately, noisy and overwhelming place.

I really like having Twitter and Facebook. Really. And when it works the way it should, it’s a great place to be.

This weekend wasn’t one of those times though. It makes me think social media still has a long way to go in its supposed revolution. At the very least, we either have a long way before we refine these platforms to encourage meaningful and responsible sharing or that we reconsider the realistic limits and boundaries of what any multi-million user social networking platform can do.

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