Tag Archives: social media

Social Media Just Aren’t That Interesting

Powerful?  Undoubtedly. Fascinating to study? Not so much.

Social Media. I teach and write about their uses and commercial functions.  But when push comes to shove (and there is a lot of intellectual shoving here), they just aren’t that interesting.  They are often the routes by which Americans now “connect” with each other. “Communicate” would be an overstatement. Are social media powerful?  Undoubtedly.  An interesting communication form to study?  Not so much.

Texting and posting via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and many other digital forms of Post-it notes usually offer us what is too often the equivalent of the stuff left over in the back desk drawer of the mind: discarded fragments of what still remains to be worked out, or judgments of others that are no credit to one’s own character. It can be a dispiriting thing to stroll through a university library full of tomes of worked out narratives and carefully curated insights into the human condition.  But if one looks at nearby tables, it seems that too many people seated in front of their laptops are doing little more than exchanging thought-fragments that now pass for flashes of judgment.  On the shelves the serious work of linear thinkers mostly remain untouched, while library patrons seem to be surfing through throwaway messages mostly because they can.  And their pictures can be just as problematic, suggesting levels of crippling self-involvement that leave little time or room for others.

My complaint is a professional one. My field used to have a sweeping focus on message analysis, examining those in public life who had interesting, frightening or far-reaching things to say.  But now, it seems, we have returned to the kinds of preoccupations that then defined our still-immature field in the 1960’s: when television was the newest medium and we studied its disposable content with an intensity it rarely deserved. And so here we are again 60 years later, looking at “emergent media” and marveling at .  .  . what exactly? The President’s awful bullying and bluster?  Celebrity comments that “go viral?,” corporations that have mastered micro-targeting because of the trail of digital bread crumbs the rest of us leave?  In terms of the quality and thoughtfulness of the messaging, it’s all pretty tepid stuff.  Perhaps television’s Ellen DeGeneres has it right.  She looks at texting as a source of humor: worth a laugh, but not much more. To be sure, the first wave of media theory with McLuhan and others was exciting.  More recent efforts seem less compelling.

The seemingly durable canons of the field used to include entire philosophies of communication thought out in exquisite detail by thinkers like Kenneth Burke, Susanne Langer, Neil Postman, Hugh Duncan, Wayne Booth, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and many others.  Their names may not be familiar, but their work propelled generations of scholars to take the work of message-analysis seriously.  Burke in particular offered a complete and evocative world view of communication that many of his acolytes adopted and still teach (in my case: to perhaps 6000 students so far).

Remember the famous line in Sunset Boulevard (1950), when the fading Norma Desmond is reminded that she “used to be big”?  Her response seems fitting to for a field that seems lost in the tall grass of pixels and platforms rather than a higher terrain beyond.  “I am big,” she responded. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

Snap Judgments

One would think that moderns educated on the complexities of the world would shun snap judgments and favor more considered conclusions. But such hopeful flattery is probably unearned.  

Tweets and other instant forms of response are doing their part to school us to accept norms that put judgment ahead of inquiry. Our taste for quick rejoinders means that judgment has already made the final turn before reasoned inquiry has left the gate.

Our public rhetoric is now consistently reactive.  We look for the simplest ways to express outrage and dismay, as any sampling of online comments remind us.  Most of us expect to read snappy attitudes uttered with conviction and and usually some vitriol. A person who responds to a question or thoughtful assertion with a “not sure” is likely to be seen as a little slow.

Snap judgments about the world are mostly unearned gifts that we give ourselves.  A sharp claim stakes out territory we can own. But anyone who takes time to notice will see that our popular and social media are filled with advocates who are in weeds over their heads.  Certainties on topics about which we know very little are as common as black flies in Maine.  And their lifespan is about as long.

 

Somehow our public rhetoric needs to pull back to give space to the considered conclusions where accuracy matters more than an immediate answer.

Thankfully, there is a language for processes of deliberation and truth-testing.  When the stakes are high, we want knowledgeable people in charge of making considered judgments.  For example, will the Boeing 737 MAX fly again soon? Presumably smart people employing solid engineering practices will be make that call.  We should expect that more will happen than the President’s suggestion that we simply give the plane a new name. Likewise, as a nation we should eventually determine if the same leader has engaged in the crime of obstruction of justice.  My quick judgment is a firm “yes.” But I’m willing to defer to legal experts who better understand criminal and legal benchmarks. Somehow our public rhetoric needs to pull back to give space to considered conclusions where accuracy matters.

A Lexicon of Truth Testing

We can construct a kind of hierarchy of decision-making mechanisms that ought to be in our minds when we seek answers to a nagging problems.  Near the top I would place the discovery process in legal proceedings. In advance of a trial, each side in criminal and civil cases has the opportunity and time to gather the facts and a full narrative.  Both sides can interview credible witnesses, subpoena documents and seek outside expertise.  A discovery process that is thorough, for example, is apt to use DNA evidence that can be help determine if a suspect could have committed an assault.

Serious investigative journalism has a similar process, often requiring two independent confirmations of an event before it can be reported.  The hearsay of one source is not enough.  Good examples of this process are found in the classic journalism sagas Spotlight (2015) and All the President’s Men (1976).  Spotlight seems especially accurate in telling the story of the Boston Globe’s research of coverups of child abuse committed by priests and church leaders in the Boston area.

Drug makers seeking to introduce a new medicine will typically need to show the efficacy of a treatment by doing some double-blind studies: tests of the proposed treatment administered to two comparable groups of patients, one getting a placebo, and the other receiving the treatment. In a double-blind study neither the patients nor clinicians administering the “meds” know whether they are handling the real stuff.  Will the experimental group get better? It’s usually a fair form of the experimental method to see if the new drug can outperform improvements triggered by the placebo effect in the ‘control’ group.

Among social scientists there is a great deal of fudging that turns correlational studies into unjustified conclusions that suggest causation.  Human research follows the general protocols of the hard sciences, even though human subjects are not easily isolated for study. For example, fast food restaurants in an area aren’t always the cause of high levels of obesity among the residents in a nearby neighborhood.  Some studies have asserted this claim with only an assumption of causation.

In many other realms we are usually open to a future leader who is doing a “listening tour” rather than a rally; or other figures who are prepared to make “reasonable inferences” or see significance in analogous situations. All are explicitly making room for logics that reserve space for more open-minded tests of a claim’s validity.

Near the bottom of the list we are left with a vast majority of public comments representing patterns of “motivated reasoning” or “confirmation bias.” These are common mental processes that allow acceptance of evidence or ideas only if they confirm what the perceiver already believes.