I Tweet; Therefore, I Exist.

Justine Sacco, head of corporate communications for New York-based InterActive Corp., recently learned a hard lesson about the power of the internet. Shortly before boarding her flight to South Africa for a holiday retreat, she posted a rather ill-advised comment on Twitter: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

While airborne (and incommunicado with the rest of humanity), her boorish remarks were re-tweeted thousands of times. Unbeknownst to her, the incident went viral, and international outrage grew, often accompanied by the hashtag “#HasJustineLandedYet.” By the time she arrived in South Africa, her career was destroyed. She issued a contrite apology and deleted her Twitter account, but was nevertheless summarily dismissed by her employer.

There are many other well-documented examples of thoughtless or hateful posts, but more personally, I have several Facebook friends that I consider to be respectful and thoughtful people. They range in age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and political affiliation, but they are generally pleasant company and reasonably well adjusted – in person. On social media, however, they morph into people I do not recognize.

By way of example, one friend’s Facebook posts predominantly center around two somewhat incongruous topics: His earnest faith in Christianity and his fervent hatred for Barrack Obama. His page is replete with inspiring Bible verses to uplift the soul, but also hosts a photo of a homemade sign pointing into a toilet, reading “free Obama dolls.” Nice.

I suspect others see this perplexing matter repeated time and again in their own social media networks. For me, it raises the question: what is it about this medium that seems to encourage statements ranging from impolite to downright vile? I suppose (and in some cases I know for a fact) that the posters of this nonsense are decent, considerate and generally well-mannered, but their online personas can be anything but. Why is that?

"Social Media is anti-social." Discuss...

Social media, like television before it, came into being with such promise. Those old enough may recall that TV was introduced, in part, with the capacity to cultivate and educate the masses. Observers at the time suggested that TV would allow professors from our most prestigious educational institutions to lecture to Middle Americans in their own homes. High culture was a significant element of network programming in the 1950s and 1960s, with broadcasts from Carnegie Hall, works of Shakespeare and ballets by Tchaikovsky.

Today, much of this has been replaced by the Kardashians, 24-hour yell-a-thons on cable news and Real Housewives who resemble no real housewife I have ever met.

Likewise, social media can, and has, provided a significant opportunity to broaden communication, globally as well as locally. Recall that during the Arab Spring earlier this decade, when political unrest led to the removal of rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Tweets from the region during the period of greatest discontent mushroomed from 2,300 per day to more than 230,000 per day. “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world,” crowed an Arab Spring activist from Egypt.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., social media postings are generally “inconsequential crap,” according to Matt Labash of the Weekly Standard, and he cites a study that broke down thousands of Tweets into six categories, the largest being “pointless babble,” at more than forty percent. Labash even coined the term “Twidiocracy” to characterize what he sees as “the decline of Western civilization, 140 characters at a time.”

WTF??? LOL!!! :-)

I see where Labash is heading, but perhaps more insidious forces are at work. I hypothesize that social media insulates us from the instant feedback that we get from face-to-face interaction, permitting many of us to therefore post without worrying about insulting the parking attendant in our building or angering our boss’s mother in law. This lack of reaction encourages (or at least, fails to discourage) us to make statements that we would never make in front of a roomful of casual acquaintances, which is what the internet often really is.

Moreover, I would suggest that the method of posting/tweeting/etc. encourages isolation, even in a group setting. Who among us has not sat through a lunch date with a colleague who had their nose buried in their smartphone, eschewing the human interaction that sitting at the meal table affords in favor of sequestered digital mass communication?

Remember the computer geek you knew in school, sitting alone with his computer, virtually friendless except in the virtual world? He is still out there, but now he is often surrounded by virtual friends who see the world exactly as he does. His petty jealousies and malicious prejudices, whatever they may be, are often mirrored among his online network. In this bubble, each dark-hearted thought, no matter how loutish, can be voiced to a receptive community.

The result coarsens our national dialogue, whether one is discussing politics, religion, sports, or just the neighbor across the way. No longer is expressing mere disagreement with an adversary sufficient. Instead, call him a socialist, a racist, a fascist, a Nazi – no epithet is out of bounds. Such comments often encounter little if any of the resistance typically offered by polite society, and in fact are often met with encouragement from like-minded associates hiding behind a screen name and a humorous avatar.

Remember: "thinking" and "posting" go together.

Every day, from the Congress to the gutter, it seems even well-meaning, thoughtful people succumb to the lure of expressing every thought, no matter how mundane or outrageous, without the benefit of reflection or qualification. After all, the means and the opportunity exist. And everyone else is doing it.

One can only hope that with time, this trend is reversed. Perhaps eventually, social media will completely fulfill its promise of broadening communication and promoting information sharing across geographic and socio-economic lines. I fear, however, that like television before it, the medium will continue to morph into some wi-fi version of “the Jersey Shore”, 140 characters in length.

At least it won’t take long to read.


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