For many of us who worked in journalism and public affairs way back in the pre-Internet age (aka the stone age), social media has gone through our careers like a tornado, leaving wreckage and longterm damage in its path. In my case, it has forced me into a radical career change, which I will discuss in a future Posse posting. But for today, I'd like to explore the ramifications of social media and the Internet.
While our digital landscape has provided many benefits, including jobs, e-commerce, and a fast, inexpensive way to inform the public about threats, to name a few, I fear the negative fallout is taking its toll.
Traditional newspapers and magazines are dying off, as consumers turn to social media, news aggregators and RSS feeds to keep them abreast of developments. Companies and organizations that used to publish respected monthly magazines or quarterly newsletters have phased them out in favor of Facebook posts, Twitter tweets and blogs. Consequently, the dogged research and investigative efforts journalists used to put forth to hold local officials' feet to the accountability fire are often being scaled back or eliminated.
While social media boasts immediacy -- it's a lot quicker getting the news out with a Tweet & hyperlink to the company website than dealing with the lag time of traditional publishing deadlines and hard copy distribution -- it also tends to be superficial, fosters rumor and hearsay, and often disregards depth and substance.
Facebook posts generate the inevitable "Like" tally (for what it's worth), plus various responses, some so incredibly inane it's downright embarrassing. Tweets can also generate a flurry of retweets, rushed responses and general muddle. Great quantity in clipped missives doesn't jibe with penetrating prose or considered thought.
The other day, my wife brought home a recent issue of "Sports Illustrated" because it featured a story and photos on the football team of Temple University, my son's alma mater. The Temple Owls, it turns out, are off to a 7-0 start (the best in the team's 121-year history) and ranked No. 21. Tonight they will face Top 10 Notre Dame in a nationally televised tilt on ESPN.
My son enjoyed the article, but remarked on how thin the magazine was. I informed him that thinner magazines and smaller page sizes were widespread in the magazine industry, while many publications have scrapped their hard copies altogether and gone online.
I am a person who would much rather read a hard copy of a book, magazine or newspaper than to use Kindle or scroll through articles on a website. But even I don't read hard copy newspapers much anymore. The two Detroit dailies are available online for those of us Michiganders who want to keep up on our news, weather and sports. Ditto for a boatload of other publications covering myriad topics.
But even the online publications don't tend to have the lengthy, well-researched and skillfully written "think pieces" of old. That is one reason I love reading the weekend Wall Street Journal: It usually has several in-depth stories on important, relevant topics -- ISIS, jobs and the economy, trends in technology and health care -- plus excellent editorials and guest opinion columns.
And I can't help but wonder: Is the proliferation of content available on the Web, including videos, Tweets, Facebook posts, plus video games, pornography and sports gambling, detracting from young people's desire to engross themselves in long stories, to really mull things over without flitting here and there every 3 seconds?
Consider the "Watters World" feature on "The O'Reilly Factor." Jesse Watters conducts impromptu "man-on-the-street" interviews (okay, person on the street) about history, politics and current events. The level of ignorance and stupidity coming from the respondents is astounding, and makes me fear for the future of our nation.
Which leads me to my recommendation of a great book I read recently: "The Shallows -- What the Internet is doing to our brains."
Author Nicholas Carr masterfully describes how new technologies, from the map to the printing press to the clock to radio, TV, computers and finally the Internet have affected the ways in which we think and learn. He refers to the Internet as a "distraction machine" and says it impairs users' ability to engage in deep reading, comprehension and information retention. The blizzard of hyperlinks, videos, RSS feeds and colorful graphics makes it way too tempting not to stray from your text.
The book gets into the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, which means neural pathways and synapses of the brain are physiologically altered by our thoughts and emotions. The parts of the brain that engage in contemplative reading, deep thinking and critical thinking can literally atrophy when people cannot control their short attention spans and keep checking out different stimuli on the Internet, Carr posits.
This utterly makes sense, when one looks at the lack of critical thinking, the ignorance of history, the inarticulate babble and the void of knowledge of classic literature sadly exhibited by so many young people who, not coincidentally, are Internet addicts.
It is a good read, and I would highly recommend it. The book actually came out about five years ago, and I read a review of it, jotting it down on my "to read" list. And finally, a few weeks ago, I got around to checking it out of the library.
It turns out that allowing a smart phone and digital technologies to rule your life can have even more negative consequences than preventing human contact and conversations with your significant other or walking into a light pole. It can also shape your brain into a form that makes you less informed and engaged.
Isn't it ironic that we have so much information at our fingertips, yet paradoxically, that vast "cyber library" in some respects dumbs us down and causes us to have less knowledge since the need to remember things and the ability to associate facts and ideas are being supplanted by Google algorithms?