As I have immersed myself more into the world of social media, commenting on articles, the blogosphere there’s a very real attraction to it for me. I like putting ideas out there, I like being social, meeting people I never would have met. Overall I’m very positive about the way we communicate. Douglas Adams in a wonderful speech he gave (transcript here) talked about how humanity has made enormous leaps via, what he calls, the four ages of sand. Sand being made of silicon he outlines the 4 ages as:
1) Using silicon to make glass for the telescope
2) Using silicon to make glass for the microscope
These two allowed us to see the macro and micro universe around us.
3) The silicon chip. Computers with their ability to do many calculations quickly allowed us to model the process of how things work.
4) Silicon for fiber optics in the communication age.
Although of course at the time of the speech we didn’t use satellite as much as we do today, but there are still a lot of computer chips involved in those! The point is that Douglas Adams saw the power of being able to communicate with people remotely as a powerful tool.
Yet when we look at this great age where the world is being connected we tend to get overwhelmed by stories of social media addiction, the loss of time spent in the physical world, face to face communication, and some often harmful interaction.
It is this last one that is on my mind right now. I watched the interview recently with Jon Ronson on The Daily Show and he has a new book where he talks about internet shaming. One of the people he focuses on in his book is Justine Sacco. You may remember her, she was the one who made a joke tweet on her way to South Africa from Heathrow and from only having 170 followers to a landslide of people waiting to lambaste her at the end of her flight. His book looks at the history of shaming and what it means in todays day and age. He wrote a good piece in the New York Times if you don’t want to read the book. It’s a great article, long, but most definitely worth a read.
After years of using digital media for communication there are many challenges to overcome. I think that ultimately when you write things that people are going to read, you have to be a great writer. Without our physical gestures and voice intonation it’s easy for meaning to get lost. It’s easy for a joke to sound serious. It’s easy for well meaning advice or information to sound condescending. It’s easy for sincerity to be taken as sarcasm. But I was thinking that good writers are not so unambiguous and we pick up things like sarcasm and sincerity better. Maybe when we communicate through writing we need to think about how we say it more deeply before we do so. I think part of the illusion lies in the fact that we think we are actually having a conversation and try to type out things like we are, but in fact communicating through writing is not very much like a face to face conversation at all. Justine Sacco’s life was destroyed for making a joke to her few twitter followers, poking fun at white privilege and walked out of a plane into an absolute hellscape of a virtual mob who wanted her to hang. Someone on twitter was even there to take her picture as she walked off the plane.
This story also reminded me of recent events concerning the pizzeria owners who said they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. A friend of mine linked me an article about how we really don’t benefit from publicly shaming those owners regardless of how discriminatory and prejudiced their views might be. Seeing that those bigots had over $800,000 raised in their name infuriated me and I could feel the anger rise in me and wanted to join the mob of people shaming the for their views. Luckily it occurred to me that being upset and shaming bigots doesn’t really change anything and that it would be better to put goodness into the world instead and decided to set up a fundraising account for an LGBT youth group in Indiana that does a lot of good work in schools and for young members of the LGBT community.
It’s amazing how easily we can succumb to being part of “the mob” through digital media. I’ve been caught up in it and I am sure many who read this have as well. When you reflect on it, it’s an empty feeling though. You get to feel bold for being part of
a righteous fight, and yet remain anonymous in that sea of virtual people calling out for someone’s blood. This is the other facet of the age of the internet is that posting comments behind the veil of a computer screen, or smart phone screen is that we feel protected and thus we say and do things we wouldn’t normally do. Everybody is familiar with “trolls” and the divisiveness they cause with their comments. In the end best advice really is “don’t feed the trolls”, but someone always does and arguments ensue. I know for me the internet allows me to be bolder than I am perhaps in real life and while sometimes I think it helps me gain some additional confidence in myself, more often I just use the internet as a shield to give compliments and say things I am too shy to say in person. Too often I also find myself assuming a more negative intention in the comments of others because the internet is full of people saying things that I don’t think they would say to your face. It’s kind of like how drinking affects people. Some people become open and honest in a kind way, others become belligerent and mean. For me I feel that it’s something I have improved on and need to keep improving to be the man on the internet that I am in real life.
I am not down on the communication age, I just feel like we’ve invented an important bit of technology that we haven’t figured
out how to use to the best of its ability yet. I think that there are a lot of important ways that the internet can be used that our too valuable to ignore. We can learn about issues all over the world that can foster our love of humanity and can help us see that we do truly live in a global community. Social media was used to organize a revolution in Egypt to overthrow a terrible dictator (sorry Egypt it hasn’t gotten much better), when in the past there would have been no easy way to send the message to everybody simply through a land line. Social media has been used to bring things to the light that would have caused more harm. A video of cop shooting a man in the back, racist chants from a sorority in Oklahoma, a video of a NFL football player knocking out his wife (not really about exposing the football player, but how it helped exposed how the NFL organization tried to cover up evidence they had about the incident) are examples of how the sharing of certain information has value. But I think we owe it to ourselves to try and take ourselves away from the mob mentality. What if Justine Sacco had made her joke to your face. Even if you weren’t clear that it was a joke would have you ran down the halls calling her a racist? You probably would have just removed yourself from her social circle, but you could have also taken her aside and turned it into a teachable moment about why her joke might not be found as funny, or asked follow up questions to understand her intention. Shaming is a terrible thing and how many of us have made jokes or comments we regret? How many times have we been wrong in our attitude or thinking and needed a chance to learn from our mistakes to come out better on the other side? Doesn’t everybody deserve that chance? Is it necessary to traumatize somebody for a few thoughtless words? Let’s instead try turn negatives into positives. Let’s try to teach instead of shame. Let’s try to understand instead of judge. I am no saint in this area, but I’m going to keep trying, because the benefits of this communication age I think are enormous. It is our disconnection from each other that leads to fear and mistrust I believe, and we can know and understand so many more people and issues today than we could 30 years ago and I truly believe that the power of the internet can lead to a new golden age for humanity.