Tag Archives: democracy

Hoping for better Web civility in 2015

In looking through some collected links from the last year, I found that this one, dating back from February and posted on the Harvard Kennedy public policy journal website, sums up so much of what I’ve been thinking lately about the digital world.

Australian graduate psychology student Claire Lehmann bemoans the culture of easy outrage on the Web, and how this supposedly ideal collaborative realm has become a forum to deepen already sharp ideological differences:

“In an era in which social media provides the fuel for partisanship, online platforms are monetizing the flames. But they are also burning the bridges between us. We seem to have fewer shared goals. Our most pressing moral challenges are ones which require creative, long-term solutions of cooperation and commitment. Globally and locally, we face environmental calamities, rising economic inequality, and ageing populations. The need for bipartisan solutions has never been stronger.

“Reinforcing bitterness between groups of people by invoking indignant outrage may be a good business strategy for online news outlets, but it is terrible for encouraging the social cohesion required to address problems facing our society . To foster cross-pollination of ideas, we need both to be aware and to listen. We should endeavor to avoid joining online digital mobs where we might throw verbal stones at anyone who may disagree with us. Ideally, we would consume a balance of information that both comforts us by adhering to our world-view and challenges us by expanding it.”

This is not a new concern, but I haven’t read a better expression of what for many, myself included, have found to be a frustrating, dispiriting development.

After nearly seven years of actively using social media, I dropped off significantly in my participation in the past year. The ability to quickly connect, converse and share information with people I find interesting and engaging was diminished by others seeking to demonize those with differing points of view, or who link to the “wrong” thing.

Perhaps I need to alter whom I follow — there are far too many people I follow who post frequently, and at times nastily, about politics. That’s not why I follow them, even if I may agree with them. It’s cable news come to my timeline, and it’s an unwanted intrusion.

Depending on the issue — and especially if it involves race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and political philosophy — one is essentially drummed into silence if the social media mobs declare a certain view to be incorrect. The cultural topics that help define who we are as humans have become bristling ideological and political vehicles, instead of entry points for understanding through respectful argument.

One of the pleasures of adopting to digital media has been the ease of hashing out points on which we may not agree. I’ve been a guest on the sports-and-culture podcast of writer Michael Tillery, whose program is housed on the RAPStation website. I don’t care for rap at all and Michael and I disagree on some of the things we talk about, and Tweet at one another. But I appreciate the chance to think out loud and not be flogged out of reflex.

There’s nothing like a vigorous, but civil debate. While social media, especially Twitter, isn’t perfect for this, some enlightening discussion has been possible. I’ve enjoyed it, in spite of its limitations.

But if mobsters want to disrupt that dialogue — and it’s troubling how many of them call themselves journalists, writers, artists, academics and intellectuals — it’s far easier to do that, and rudely troll someone they don’t follow, or who doesn’t follow them.

So whenever big news came down — a Supreme Court ruling, the Ferguson demonstrations, a mass shooting or allegations of a gang rape — I logged out. I suspect I wasn’t alone.

It’s just not worth it to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion of hot-button issues, at least openly on social media. I’m not afraid of having my own views challenged; if anything I want to learn what I don’t know, or what my blind spots are.

But it’s best doing so in other venues, including blogs and podcasts and offline conversation. Despite its many positives, social media is no match for old-fashioned face-to-face talk, or a phone call, or a thorough vetting through the written word.

Besides, I’m not any good at responding to the mobs. I don’t have the jugular for it. I admire those who do, such as blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan. He recently pegged a fierce defense of his tenure as editor of The New Republic, and its contrarianism that offends many liberals, following an attack from leading black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

While Coates seems eager to banish even discourse about views he doesn’t like, Sullivan loves the free-range, interactive exchange of ideas that the Web makes possible. On his blog, The Dish, he exemplifies it like few others

“The role of journalism is not to police the culture but to engage in it.”

Sullivan’s Enlightenment-oriented desire to let all views be aired, and then see where the debate goes, is being eclipsed by an authoritarian sensibility that’s getting stronger in the digital world, and on social media in particular.

This growing force of the culture police wants nothing to do with engagement. They are on the left and the right, and this leaves the rest of us feeling as we do about politics — left out of the conversation, browbeaten into withholding our views. Especially if they are more nuanced and complicated than the mob can handle.

Like Lehmann, I fret that the mainstream media will continue to traffick in such divisive fare, and that the onslaught will be far more overwhelming than anything we saw in 2014. That’s saying something.

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Readings: Newspapers and democracy, the freelancing life, Craigslist and slow media

Some good long-form pieces on journalism, the media and related topics for some weekend reading. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the fate of newspapers, but soon I’ll be unveiling a revamped blog concept designed to move far beyond those boundaries.

As usual, I seem to conclude this roundup with an admonition to get off the Web for a bit. It’s a great and wonderful thing, but not merely for its own sake:

Unnecessary death of an institution: “To see the word ‘I’ in any kind of piece written by a reporter is about as shocking a development as a reader can read in the Times. Suddenly Times reporters are writing in the first person. The next thing you know Times beat writers will be cheering in the press box.”

Vanishing down the ink hole: “Not to be snide about it, but is quality journalism the best tool to foster democracy? Advocates of participatory democracy and government accountability might be smarter to invest their time directly in reforming government.”

The Midnight Disease: Freelance Writing’s Joy and Terror: “One night, sharing drinks with a woman, long after the thrill of seeing my byline had died, she asked in wonderment, ‘Don’t you just love seeing your name in print?’ I replied: ‘I love seeing my name on a check.’ ”

Why not sell EveryBlock to a newspaper? “It’s like asking me, after I put together a band of musicians, why I didn’t choose the musician who spoke Portuguese. What difference does it make if a musician speaks Portuguese?”

The New Media Crisis of 1949: “Americans of all ages ­embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That’s the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.”

Of Media Poverty and Passion: “Add a healthy dose of old-fashioned journalistic passion to the mix, and you will be more successful than your father or any journalism professor ever could have imagined. That knowledge is all that keeps the hope within me alive after three consecutive layoffs, two of them within 10 months, in a changing media world. The future of journalism is both scary and exciting. It will be literally what we formerly ink-stained wretches make of it.”

Portrait of the Artist as a Digital Native: “As a creative type you can promote your work as much as you can online, you can give samples or all of your work for free, but until now a sure foot on ‘old’ media is still needed for success. Notions of authority, professionalism, quality, respectability and good artistic reputation are still defined by gate-kept models.”

Why Craigslist is such a mess: “It is easy to find hypocrisy in the idealism of a business owner who prescribes democracy for others while relieving himself of the tiresome burden of democratic consultation in the domain where he has the most power. But of course, craigslist is not a polity; it is just an online classified advertising site, one that manages to serve some basic human needs with startling efficiency. It is difficult to overstate the scale of this accomplishment.”

A Manifesto for Slow Communication: “Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world.”