"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Thomas Jefferson
Sept. 23, 1800

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Antisocial Media

The lovely Lisa and I were discussing the challenges of public information and publicity a lot this week. She has a role, and an expanding one, in helping with public information duties for our town. She recently oversaw a revamping of the town's website, and it looks GREAT, to let me just brag a bit. Anyhow, she's doing that and I'm the publicity chairman for our local community theatre (who's website I designed in a much less impressive manner than the town's). We talked about the pluses and minuses of the various routes for our purposes and the difficulties involved in getting information into the public's collective head no matter how one goes about doing it. It made me realize, first of all, how much I don't know about social media, but it made me also appreciate how much my attitudes towards what I do know are changing.

I joined Facebook, according to the nifty little slideshow they recently put together for everyone, in 2010. I was a relative latecomer, I guess. I've embraced it since as an easy way to be social without actually having to be social. I'm more than passing misanthropic and due to past experience and my own personality flaws I've never really expected much in the way of relationships with others. Facebook gave me a way to break down some walls, I guess. I post quite a bit. I post pictures a lot, and have found I have a bit of a following of people looking for the next "Where's John" photo. We tend to not sit at home, and apparently others look at our roaming with a mixture of admiration and amusement. I brag on my family and friends, celebrate what makes me happy and sometimes what makes me laugh. I try to keep the politics good-natured , though I'm sure there are those who'd say I fail in that, it's the nature of politcs. But most of all, I've always tried to keep it up-beat and happy as much as I can.

I don't know if it's me or Facebook, but it seems a lot of the happy is being drowned in negativity and snark. There was always that, but either I'm noticing it more now or it's becoming more commonplace. From the get-go I felt that the danger of Facebook was more social/cultural/personal than privacy-oriented. I look at Facebook as a huge, omnipresent billboard that everyone with a computer will see. If you don't want the world to know it, don't put it up there. The whole concept of "the Facebook Stalker" is laughably ridiculous to me. It's akin to walking the Macy's Day Parade naked and then accusing the parade spectators of being voyeurs. Facebook is exhibitionism, pure and simple, you have no right to expect others to ignore you. It's called a Social Network for a reason, neither word there implies privacy.

No, I don't care who reads my posts about our next musical or sees the picture of my sushi, the more the merrier, what I care about is what it's doing to our social culture. I believe Facebook is the most dynamic and effective enabler of passive aggression in history. Completely unintentionally, I think, Facebook is designed in such a way as to make it easier to hurt people by NOT doing something than by actively striking out. Just as an example, we would never acknowledge four out of five friends all standing together in a group and ignore the fifth.  In real life, it would be socially awkward, but online, you can do it largely without social consequence. The cyber-versions of social norms aren't formed yet.

The "rules" of social interaction online are fluid. As a culture, we are grappling with the ways to handle this new world and fit it into a social culture that has taken thousands of years to develop. It's fascinating and scary at once, particularly as it relates to our children. We recently had a police shooting of a young man in our small community that has placed neighbors on different "sides". I was shown a long series of Facebook posts where the children in our local high school were tearing each other apart over the incident. The boy who was shot was a student at the school and the shooter's children also attended. Sides were drawn and an all out war of words ensued on Facebook that would make any parent cringe, if not cry. There was no passive aspect to this, it was complete aggression. And I have to wonder how much of it would have been said face to face, where they could see each other's tears.

Both because I was getting frustrated with Facebook (I even had a post about a cute little children's educational cartoon turn snarky in the comments) and because our theatre's account desperately needed followers, I joined Twitter. Twitter is a much less snarky, negative place than Facebook. It's also a bit lonely. It's not set up, it seems, to encourage interaction so much as announcements. There is a lot of "following" going on, but it looks difficult to get any sort of feedback. I have so far purposely kept from even insinuating looking for a response, my ego just can't handle rejection in a new venue, but I've seen others plainly ask for advice or opinions of followers with whom they have obvious commonalities and get crickets. I don't think it's the same purposeful, passive aggressive cold shoulder as Facebook, I just think Twitter isn't the kind of place where conversations happen. Which isn't a bad thing. I kind of like the freedom of being able to just blurt things out without any expectation of response. It appeals to my inner loner.

Twitter also seems like a more commercial place. This is probably due to the lack of feedback; it's a better, more controllable marketing tool. We've tried to reinvigorate the theater's Twitter account with great success. We think. The number of "Followers" has more than doubled, but without the automatic feedback of Facebook, we can't really say if it's working well getting our message out.

Working on theater publicity has been a learning experience in itself, really. When you look at Facebook or Twitter as a tool rather than a toy, it changes your perspective. You begin to understand the algorithms behind the chatter and it can become frustrating when others don't. Our theater page depends, because it isn't a person, on interactions with an audience to keep it in sight. Encouraging that interaction is a challenge, but so far it's one our Facebook admin has embraced and we as a group are very lucky for that.  I can completely understand why some businesses pay big money to social media gurus. It isn't easy ground to navigate.

For all it's faults, I think Facebook is here to stay, but whether it does or not, it's effects on culture, communication and marketing have already changed our society forever. There are more social media out there -- Instagram, Google +, Linked-In, Snapchat, Pinterest and who knows what else. Wrapping my little brain around just Facebook and Twitter is enough of a challenge, I am almost afraid to delve too deeply into the rest. But you never know what the next great tool will be, or what you as a parent had better understand for the sake of your child, so I'll keep as open a mind as I am able.