Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Unsocial Media

The internet is a strange place.

That's a statement we can all unite around, isn't it? Whether we hate it or we love it, we can recognize that the virtual connections we forge on the internet produce different experiences than real-life connections. Sometimes they are plain unusual. And yet, where else can you connect ideas so freely? We tolerate the oddity of web-connected gnostic relationships (read: "not in the flesh") because they bring us some value. Whether it's sharing something we love, exchanging fresh points of view, finding support through a hardship, or just helping us feel less lonely, our virtual connections serve us a worthy purpose.

On that last point, it's interesting to hop onto social media sites like Facebook and Twitter when something big is happening in the world. Instead of experiencing something alone you can feel like you're experiencing it right along with all your virtual friends. Watching a web-cast of some conference by yourself? Hop on Facebook chat & find out if anyone else is watching it. Or send out a Tweet with the appropriate hashtag. It's almost like a virtual town square where everyone can gather to share the experience together. Part of the attraction has to be the ease of access: instead of getting dressed up, climbing in your car, and going to an actual town square, you can just flip open your laptop.

And so that's what I found myself doing when the news starting buzzing on Sunday night May 1st that the President was requesting time from the major networks to make an announcement. I hopped on Twitter and Facebook to see what the world was saying. What I observed was fascinating. As the President was making his announcement, dozens of people were posting the news as their status. The people I follow on Twitter made snarky comments about this or that (as only people on Twitter can do). But the mood was mostly celebratory. People happy that the boogey-man was gone. People happy that their deeply-rooted beliefs in American Exceptional-ism were confirmed. People happy that justice was done. People happy for our troops, as if this was "Mission Accomplished" (and it felt like it), and happy for families of troops, as if this justified their decade of sacrifice.

But as joyful post after joyful post crawled across the computer screen, I began to notice another theme rising: righteous indignation. Disgust that anyone could find any glee or redemption from the death of a man. Little matter that this man was the most terrifying figure of this century. These people were upset -- uninterruptedly shouting into the chorus of joy about how inappropriate the joy was. It would be akin to a small faction of people making a ruckus about people enjoying a wedding reception because of 9% unemployment, or suffering in Sudan, or something along those lines. It was amazing. Like shouting into a whirlwind. Did these people think that they were going to shout down a happy mob? Who shouts down a mob?

Then I observed more indignation. People acting cranky over the President getting credit "instead of the soldiers." People acting cranky over the news about it being everywhere. People expressing anger over almost anything! Even people acting cranky over people getting cranky. Yeah, that's right: that was me. Even I tried to shout down the army of wet blankets who were trying to douse everyone's happiness. I'm not proud of it, but it happened.

The whole thing was just a strange phenomenon that led me two days later on Facebook to opine:

(Philip) thinks he learned a lesson since Sunday night: when big events happen, stay off of Facebook. Too emotionally charged. Too many opinions. Just seems like a good policy.

Let's see how long it takes before I have to re-learn this lesson

Turns out it was 9 weeks to the day. 63 days!

Because last Tuesday a Florida jury declared a verdict of not guilty on the most heinous charges brought against Casey Anthony. The reaction was virtually immediate; it was swift & full of fury. Twitter exploded. As I looked on, one person after another unleashed their rage -- or at least their dissatisfaction -- on Facebook. The general theme was that there was a miscarriage of justice. Some were affected to the point of feeling sick to their stomach. Some expressed not ever being able to trust the justice system again. (...seemingly reversing the sentiment from 2 months ago. If killing bin Laden helped us all feel strong again, the Casey Anthony verdict made us feel weak) And then, of course, the snark.

"O.J. Simpson finds this verdict outrageous."

"I wonder if the Casey Anthony trial jurors would ever let her babysit THEIR kids?!?"

"I wonder if Dexter will come after her!"

Social media has made us all into social commentators. And then there's strange minds like mine that spend time like this commenting on all the commentary.

Me personally: I could feel the spirit of spirit of indignation welling up inside me again. Not because I felt honor-bound to defend Casey Anthony. Not at all. It's pretty apparent that this woman murdered her daughter (whether purposefully or accidentally), then hid the body, then lied to the police. And all that while partying like a rockstar. No, I didn't feel the need to defend her; my temper was rising because... I guess because everyone else's was. "Don't these people know that the state prosecutors did a terrible job?" "Don't these people know that the jurors did exactly what they were supposed to do?" "Why are all my grace-accepting Christian friends obsessed with seeing this woman fry in an electric chair?"

Thankfully I refrained from angering anyone with these thoughts. I think. I let a couple of them loose on Twitter. Hopefully without causing anyone else ill temper.

I've spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what possesses me in moments like these. Part of it has gotta do with how I'm wired. Being an ideological moderate, I like things balanced. So when I encounter a perspective that is wildly one-sided, and emotionally charged, it charges my emotions to want to respond with the other side of the argument. It's as if something somewhere deep inside me is wanting to exclaim, "THIS IS MORE COMPLEX THAN YOU'RE LETTING ON, YOU KNUCKLEHEAD!"

The good folks at the "You Are Not So Smart" blog would say that I'm unwittingly giving myself over to the backfire effect. That's where, when confronted with an opposing opinion, you strengthen & fortify your own views. I like how they put here:

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party a valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

No, probably not. Most online battles follow a similar pattern, each side launching attacks and pulling evidence from deep inside the web to back up their positions until, out of frustration, one party resorts to an all-out ad hominem nuclear strike. If you are lucky, the comment thread will get derailed in time for you to keep your dignity, or a neighboring commenter will help initiate a text-based dogpile on your opponent.

After some deliberation, I have decided that this is folly. (g) Seriously: Thank God for good satire to rouse us out of the caricature-like behavior that we can so easily & unwittingly slip into.

I've decided to repent & not steamroll over other peoples' views anymore. I recognize that it will be difficult for my balance-craving psyche to accomplish. But somehow I'll manage.

I think of two examples from Scripture. One is the prophecy about Jesus in Isaiah 42 that's also quoted in Matthew 12: "He will not wrangle or cry aloud, or raise his voice in the streets." Jesus managed to live His life and make His point without making a dramatic scene. Seems like I could do the same. I've also long admired Paul with how he combined both boldness and humility in a spirited defense of himself and his faith in Acts 26. One of the more under-rated passages of Scripture, IMO. Probably one I could stand to spend more time with. As could we all.

And if social media is the virtual town square, then it makes sense to act as one would when actually at the town square. If those gathered grow unruly & start to act with great furor, common sense would generally say, "Time to head home." I don't know why it's so hard -- maybe because it's just so intense -- but it wouldn't hurt just to log off. It's not like missing out on those two or three heated status threads (read: virtual Molotov Cocktails) is going to hurt. In fact, if indeed I were throwing a few around, it probably would.

* I wish I'd made that fabulous photo. I didn't. That came from www.xkcd.com via the "You Are Not So Smart" Blog.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Social Performance

You know that feeling you get when a story just gets flipped upside down on you? Maybe a key member of the supporting cast becomes the villain? And it throws you for a loop? That was my feeling after going on the internet to read more about the film The Social Network. Apologies in advance if you haven't seen the film. Perhaps you could bookmark this entry & just come back to it after you've gotten a chance to watch it.

As a stand-alone movie, The Social Network is very, very good. The screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin, who has earned critical acclaim (and, less exciting, but also my own personal admiration) for previous works like A Few Good Men, The American President, and The West Wing, and he won an Academy Award last night for his work. The drama develops and climaxes in a such a way that captures & holds your attention, the dialogue is snippy in a pleasing way, and there's even a story within a story that leaves those who appreciate depth satisfied.

Just a Zuck & his laptop
Just a Zuck and his Laptop
Which leaves me all the more curious now about the product in general. Because if the product of a master craftsman showcases so many of his fingerprints, is that product more of a reflection of its subject or of its creator?

As I said earlier, the excellence of the movie itself drove me to learn more. And what I learned changed my perspective on the movie as a chronicle of real events. For one thing, Sorkin's manuscript wasn't original material. It was inspired by & based upon the book written by Ben Mezrich called The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. Mezrich's main source for his book? Eduardo Saverin: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's former best friend & the guy who funded the first $18,000 that allowed Facebook to launch all the way back in 2004. Ben Mezrich also wrote Bringing Down the House, a book about Asian-American kids from MIT that won hundreds of thousands of dollars playing Blackjack. You may be familiar with that story as well if you've seen the movie "21." Only they casted the film mainly with Caucasian actors and, according to Jeff Ma, sexed/partied up the story. Kinda like what Zuckerberg says happened in Mezrich's book about him.

To make a long story short, The Social Network isn't what it appears to be. What it is at it's heart is an act of cold-blooded revenge by a jilted former best friend. The motive that brought the story to prominence was as dark-hearted as Harvey Updyke's scheme to poison a cluster of trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, AL. His aim was to one-up himself in the eyes of the world in the same way that Justin Timberlake did to Britney Spears with "Cry Me a River." This is the grouping that The Social Network belongs in: with a legacy of having carried out revenge in a devastating & public way.

But back to Sorkin. Because even if his manuscript is slanted by his interesting observation of a social network being developed by a socially-awkward creator, his observations are still smart & interesting. Take his comments at the end of his interview on The Colbert Report, starting around the 5:45 mark:

"Social networking is to socializing as reality television is to reality."

I was one of those gasping at how profound I considered the statement. (g) Because it is a performance. You have full control to edit what you project to the world. And so does everyone else. Meaning that what you see on someone's profile page or Twitter feed is only what they want you to see. So that we all have the ability to shape our "virtual realities," or the story about ourselves that we project to the world outside ourselves. And we can shape that in a way that flatters ourselves, boosts our pride, or any number of other selfish motives. Kind of like how Aaron Sorkin & Ben Mezrich shaped their respective stories to make them more engaging for the silver screen and the hardback.

Which makes me wonder about the following questions. I don't have firm answers yet, and if anyone wants to begin a dialogue, I think it'd be a fruitful conversation to have. Tell me what you think about the following...

- How can we do social networking in a way that doesn't serve our own conceit?

- How can we do social networking in a way that doesn't make us anti-social?

...and finally...

- How can we do social networking in a way that reflects the story of God & brings more glory to Him?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Hype Aversion

I certainly chuckled when I saw the Urban Word (Phrase. Whatever.) of the Day this morning:

Hype Aversion

Rejection of an insanely popular idea, game, show, place etc. simply because it is so insanely popular.

"I'm enjoying season three of 'Lost'."
"Season three came out four or five years ago."
"I know, I suffer from hype aversion."

I'm pretty sure I did this about MySpace, Facebook, & Twitter before I eventually joined those three platforms 6-18 months after the rest of the world had already been enjoying them as new ways to connect with other people. You could consider me a contrarian market indicator: if you happen to hear me hating on some new technological phenomenon, invest in that stock right away before I start to love it.

(BTW, there's still time: I remain skeptical about Microsoft Kinect. Even though I've never tried it. Just as I was before ever logging on to MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter...)

I've thought about this in a related way before when I wrote on hyperbole. Sometimes we lose touch with the amplification of our language. And in doing so we may lose perspective. It's the reason, I'm convinced, some are moved to hate Duke basketball or Tim Tebow. I'll let Tuscaloosa News Sports Editor Cecil Hurt, in a column from 2 years ago, take it from here:

I was never convinced (Tim) Tebow’s decision to sign with Florida instead of Alabama was quite the inner struggle that it was purported to be on the ESPN special chronicling his recruitment. But he says it was tough and I will give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s been on my past two Heisman Trophy ballots and if, unlike Glen Coffee, he decides to return for another season in college, he’ll probably make my list for 2009 as well.

I refrain from calling him “Superman,” as television commentators do repeatedly, not because he isn’t a great player and a fine young man, but because ultimately, the over-the-top hyperbole doesn’t do Tebow any good, either.

The Florida quarterback seems to have turned just about every person with a microphone into a blathering fan. In the end, one fears, it will end up having the same result as Dick Vitale’s endless paeans to the Duke basketball program. You’ll start to resent the subject because the messenger — or, in Tebow’s case, the legions of messengers — finally push you to a point where you say “enough is enough.”

I ended up watching the BCS championship and wondering if Tebow had any teammates. That’s not Tebow’s fault, but it was the impression you were left with by the Fox broadcast. It’s great to say that Tebow was “willing his team to victory,” but there must have been at least 21 other Gators who were doing a little something.

And so hype aversion sets in, and people begin to talk about how Coach K or Tim Tebow must be frauds. People sense a need to voice negativity as a strange counter-balance to unencumbered love-fests.

Don't believe in it yet? Ask a regular viewer of ESPN their opinion of Brett Favre. Better yet, do it in July or August.

I could be way off-base, but it occurs to me that a whole cultural subset has emerged out of peoples' deep need to counter-balance excessive hype. We call them hipsters. They don't shop at The Gap or Old Navy essentially because the style of clothes at those stores get too much play. So they develop more eclectic tastes. Same goes for tastes in music & entertainment. In essence their whole lives, it seems, become a counter-balance to what prevailing culture says is "awesome!" or "great!"

Which seems silly to me. Sorry, hipster friends. Even my own behavior seems silly in retrospect. How could I have hated something so neat as a tool like Facebook that helps me maintain relationships with people I haven't seen in years? What's more, hated it before I even tried it, before I even fully understood what effect it would have, almost entirely because others around me were singing it's praises? That's silly.

So I'm going to try to stop being averse to trying new things just because a lot of hype surrounds them. And I'm going to try to manage my aversion to hype and hyperbole in ways other than imposing a personal embargo.

So somebody tell me more about this fun new toy I've heard about called the iPhone.