Social Media Shorthand

This is a theme I’ve certainly written about before; it is in fact, the theme that started this blog — the idea that the expansion of stuff through communications technology can lead to a reduction in the very benefits meant to be yielded by the expansion in the first place.  CNN’s insistence upon providing round-the-clock speculation about the missing Malaysian airliner is just the latest absurd example demonstrating how 24hr news can yield less actual reporting than the years when TV news was limited to just a few hours a day.  This, perhaps counterintuitive, more-is-less phenomenon is not only replicated in the realm of social media, it appears to be exacerbated by the tools themselves, which promise deeper immersion into stuff, but wind up fostering exactly the opposite behavior.  And according to this New York Times editorial about online slang by novelist Teddy Wayne, the shorthand we often use online doesn’t necessarily help.  From the article:

“It takes far more time and energy to express a nuanced reaction to a personal essay than simply writing “Heart” or “Oh, please.” Likewise, when a celebrity does something we disagree with, it is easier to condemn him with a one-word takedown than to empathize with his humanity and communicate a more complex reflection. If you physically handed an article to a friend, or even emailed it, it’s doubtful you would sum it up with one reductive word. But when disseminating it to the masses, we often dumb down our own interpretations.”

I don’t think Wayne means to suggest these monosyllabic habits are a purposeful dumbing down the way a TV executive might want to make a script less literate in order to retain marketshare.  Instead, these slangy fragments, even used by highly educated adults, are just an inevitable by-product of the technologies and interfaces themselves.  The volume and rate at which things go by while we’re probably meant to be doing something else combined with the fact that we may be typing with a single thumb on smart phone is all going to produce concision just this side of a grunt.  What interests me, though, is whether or not these fragmentary exchanges are more than a byproduct and are instead something akin to a force, like the dark matter of the universe causing both expansion and acceleration toward a greater “emptiness.”  A friend or colleague’s endorsement (i.e. share) is a powerful validation; so, if a friend shares a story along with  the note “Terrible” or “Amazing!” or some other context-free comment, does this further increase the probability of one taking a headline and a picture at face value and passing it along with one’s own cursory remark?

Just last week, a well-educated, well-meaning friend on Facebook posted an article about a new, admittedly concerning, bill in Tennessee.  The article was hosted on a website that deals with LGBT issues.  It featured a stock photo of two young men grappling and one of them clearly about to get his face pounded.  The headline stated that the new bill would effectively permit bullying of gay students in public schools as a form of religious expression.  Is it outside the scope of some people’s beliefs?  Not at all.  Is it the kind of thing we might expect to come from certain regions of this country?  Sure.  Do the headline and and photo accurately reflect the language in the bill?  Not quite.  The bill itself certainly should be of concern to those of us who believe the separation of church and state is unambiguous, but there’s nothing I can read in its text that can justifiably be called state-sanctioned bullying of anyone in particular.

Not to get bogged down in that bill per se, the point is that I suspect we all propagate shorthand engagement with social issues from time to time, pushing semi-accurate stories along with a verbal pat on the back or slap on the wrist.  What’s interesting, though, about this Tennessee bill example is that the lead is one of those that can immediately send one into a rage about a matter entirely different from the more subtle and insidious concern that the story actually raises.  On first encounter with the keyhole view of this story on Facebook, a whole movie narrative unfolds in the mind with hicks beating up gay kids while school officials quietly thank God in the background. Meanwhile, as we share, vent a moment of outrage, and move on, we risk missing the subtle story in which the Tennessee state legislature is moving the needle between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause toward favoring more religious influence in public schools. As Wayne writes, “Indeed, fragments are indicative of how quickly we pass judgment while on the Internet without investigating an issue too deeply. We share articles and videos that conform to our prejudices but rarely seek out opposing views, and hardly ever link to them unless it’s to mock them.”

My photographer friend calls all this “gisting.”  My journalist friend calls the internet the greatest tool for “epistemic closure,” describing its efficacy in providing endless support of one’s pre-existing biases.  Whatever we want to call these superficial interactions with information, with news, even with one another, it seems as though the solution is a conscious choice to force behaviors contrary to the instincts fostered by the technologies.   Or…whatevs.

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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