Well, so far I have been largely singing the praises of the uses of new technology in and for church. But technology is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It all depends on how we use it.
Now most of us have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, and I generally trust people’s moral compasses to be well intentioned. I’m a glass 3/4 full kind of guy. The challenge is that old Law of Unintentioned Consequences. That’s when we try to do good but end up causing problems we never envisioned. Our global environmental mess is a fairly macro example of this. ” Oops…sorry Mother Nature…we were just making things better for everyone…especially the rich everyones.”
Social media is no different. It brings a lot of good with the incredible leap forward in information sharing and communication, but it, too, has a shadow side.
Most obvious, perhaps is that there is no guarantee that facts are checked before being tweeted or posted or YouTubed. As many of you know, denials by those gored by unchecked claims are usually disbelieved, if, in fact, anyone bothers to read them. Accusation, sadly, often equals guilt in our society. Some posters are just sloppy, some are mean spirited and some are downright vicious. The rise in cyber-bullying in schools (and out) is an example of how information can be used for bad purposes.
Secondly, and perhaps more insidiously, the short attention span of net browsers means that people with a cause or an idea to promote have to necessarily condense and simplify issues. On Twitter, for example, you have to get the message across in about 140 characters – not words, characters. I can’t even manage the day’s grocery list in 140 characters! It is impossible to explain issues fully, or to consider nuance or the finer points of discussion in this headline style media age. It’s about persuasion, not explanation, polemic instead of critique. Social media generally lacks subtlety.
As a Canadian I am acutely aware of how this oversimplification of issues can raise the emotional pitch of a debate to a point where rationality disappears from the discussion and polarization becomes the standard. European ire over the nature of the Canadian seal hunt completely ignored the values of traditional life for the Inuit and the east coast fisherfolk, and also ignored the devastating of an uncontrolled seal population on the fishery.
And living in Alberta, the overblown rhetoric on both sides of the oil sands debate has left most moderates despairing over ever finding a useful and workable middle ground.
And please don’t assume my position on either issue just because I point them out.
My point is that social media campaigns tend to leave little room for diplomacy or collaborative thinking.
In the last few weeks anyone even slightly switched on has caught a whiff of the star issue of the social network world, Kony 2012.
Yesterday the CBC Radio One program ‘Q’ hosted and excellent and friendly 15 minute debate on the unintended effects of the Kony2012 campaign. I HIGHLY commend it to you. Kony 2012 is the viral video attacking the Ugandan warlord who has done devastating things to and with children for 25 years. The video is meant for high school students, but has had 80 million views in a couple of weeks and has drawn all kinds of celebrity support. It is controversial because it is said to be simplistic, inaccurate at times, and that it reinforces stereotypes about the negative aspects of politics in Africa. It does not lead viewers to deeper resources for further exploration, or even towards some kind of solution beyond a world day of action in April. (By the way, I just discovered that the full 29 minute film is now being blocked on YouTube at least in Canada by some stock exchanges…interesting!) The CBC debaters – one a Ugandan – make wonderful, nuanced points. Though cast as being for and against, in reality the two chose to point up positives and negatives in a most respectful way. It was refreshing and provoked me into writing this.
Social media is good for incitement and calls to action. Certainly that has its place, but we need to be wary of that power. There are so few checks and balances on the net right now that it seems to be a fertile place for unintended consequences to get started.
A final concern for today, one that also stems from short attention span of the average net user, is that there is a fairly good chance that even if you have read this far, you probably didn’t and won’t do the deeper research by clicking on the Q radio debate link. Don’t worry…there is a fair chance I wouldn’t either if I were reading this. Typically 50% of people will not proceed to a second page of any document on the web.
I think we have to be aware of these concerns as we go forward. Social networking in all of its forms is a tool box. Just as we have to choose between a screwdriver and a crescent wrench, so we have to choose wisely among the tech tools available to us. Before we embrace the new boldly and enthusiastically, we need to do a little research on the downside and shortcomings of any program or tool we think we might like to try. It might take a few more clicks or a couple of hours or so of research, but it might save some unintended consequences.