Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Media Rants: Social Media Masks

This Media Rant went to press before the outbreak of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. That movement appears to be making great use of social media in the civic manner outlined in the Rant. It remains to be seen if OWS can or will result in an Egyptian style uprising right here in the USA. -TP

Social Media Masks

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri  

from the October 2011 edition of the Fox Valley SCENE

New York University Professor of New Media ClayShirky argues that humans spend a trillion hours per year engaged in digital media creation and participation. That participation can be what Shirky calls “communal” (e.g. placing humorous photos on Twitter or Facebook largely for the benefit of online friends or followers) or “civic” (e.g. using digital media to coordinate political actions that benefit society at large.).

The ongoing revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa feature remarkable displays of civic digital media participation. Twitter, Facebook, texting, and other digital dynamics did not cause the toppling of corrupt, tyrannical governments in Tunisia and Egypt, but as noted by Internet pundit Stephen Balkam: “it is undeniable that the use of the web to organize and sustain many of the protests has been critical.”

In the United States, the disappearance of civic culture is well documented, depressing, and dangerous. Not surprisingly, Americans spend much time using social media for communal participation. As a moderately active Facebook and Twitter participant for more than a year, I’ve noticed that individual users create “personas” for their “friends” (Facebook) or “followers” (Twitter).  I’ll call these personas “Social Media Masks.” Here are the masks I’ve observed:

*The Self Promoter: Online or off, we’re all self promoters to some extent. There’s nothing inherently wrong with drawing attention to our professional and other accomplishments. In business and in the nonprofit world, survival often requires effective self promotion. On Twitter and Facebook, the most pathetic self promotion tends to come from politicians.  I read a tweet from a congressional candidate urging me to go to her website “to sign up or contribute and help send a bold, energetic leader to Congress!” Thank goodness politicians promote themselves that way; otherwise we might think they are “cowardly, lethargic followers.”

*The Mom and Dadzilla: The American family may be dysfunctional and in disarray, but you’d never know that if your only knowledge came from parental Facebook posts. In this my 50th year of existence, thanks to FB I’ve seen more photos of happy children, more photos of happy children embraced by happy parents, and more photos of happy extended family gatherings than I had seen in my prior 49 years combined.

*The Town Crier: Unlike pure self promoters, town criers will announce events that may have nothing to do with them personally. In addition to promoting events, town criers are very good at forwarding useful  information to their friends and followers about everything from how to find out where to vote to who’s running the best happy hour special.

*The Court Jester: The court jesters think the world would be a better place if we would all just lighten up a little. If there’s an over the top “lolcat” (a photograph of a cat with a humorous text) somewhere on the web, the court jesters will pass it on. Some court jesters have a preference for vulgar comedic material, which often puts them at odds with the mom and dadzillas.

*The Hyperpartisan: Democratic and Republican Party zealots are obnoxious offline, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they’d be that way on the net too. The hyperpartisan will forward link after link of punditry, reporting, studies, and literally anything else that shows their side is right and the other wrong (although the hyperpartisan’s tone usually implies the other side is not just wrong but also evil and corrupt.). The problem with hyperpartisans of any stripe, online or offline, is that they are too predictable. They’re usually bereft of original thoughts and so it’s easy to dismiss them as nothing more than hacks. You watch: if and when America does experience an Egyptian style rebellion, the hyperpartisan hacks will be the first ones to defend the status quo against the citizen “mobs.”

*The Pedantic: Often wallowing in obscurity, pedantics seek to enlighten friends and followers with bits of insight and information not typically available in the mainstream media. On Twitter, which allows only 140 characters per post, the pedantic sometimes communicates in proverbs. African-American scholar/activist Cornel West’s twitter feed has elements of a modern Sermon on the Mount. On September 7th he tweeted, “interrogate your hidden assumptions.” A few days later he opined, “If you’ve got your heart in your slingshot, you can bring down giants.” Hmmm.

*The Bob Grahamer: In 2003 then Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham announced he would seek his party’s nomination for the presidency. The press revealed Graham’s obsessive journaling habits: “He has kept a running account of his every waking moment for the past 23 years; 14 in the Senate, eight in the Governor's mansion, even his days in the state legislature. Graham writes down every meal, every meeting, every person he meets.”  In the online world, a Bob Grahamer is someone who matches the former senator’s level of minutiae documentation but insists on posting it for all to see. You all know the type.

All of the social media masks described above represent media users in creative action. Professor Shirky says “the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act.”  Using media to create is much better than the consumer, couch potato model of media use of the latter 20th century. The 21st century challenge is to turn the creative, purely communal social media masks into creative civic masks.