James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘social networking’

Social networking making us stupider–and me cranky

Posted by James McPherson on April 30, 2010

I’m on Facebook even though the social networking leviathan–now the most popular Internet site in the country–apparently makes people stupider. Like we can afford that.

I tend to check in on my page relatively rarely, most often when an e-mail alert tells me I have a message, when I want to track down someone I know, or to pimp this blog or other writing. I hope my disinterest beyond that is more because I’m too busy than because I’m too selfish to care what my “friends” are up to most of the time, but in fact I use Facebook in the same way I use other technology–as a tool.

That’s why the only cell phone I own is a prepaid version that’s never turned on unless I want to make a call (which happens probably about once a month, usually when I’m trying to remember what I was supposed to buy at the supermarket), and why I have caller ID and an answering machine. I own technology for my own convenience, not, frankly for the convenience of others. As convenient as cell phones are for many things–and I no longer no anyone that doesn’t have one–I wouldn’t mind terribly going back to a world without them. I don’t text, let alone Twitter; life is too short. And I don’t understand, as I weave my way through traffic past numerous nitwits talking on their phones, how people can have so much to talk about.

One of the best things about Facebook is seeing how some people change; one of the worst things about Facebook is what it demonstrates about how many people are stuck in the past. I once imagined that years after graduation, everyone would be different–that we’d all be less petty, more enlightened. But attending a 20-year-reunion showed me that far too much of the change was external; we were grayer and heavier, and the men had less hair. But the people who were jerks and morons in high school mostly still were.

More than a decade after that reunion, Facebook lets me see that they still are. And for better or worse, they now have the opportunity to exhibit their ignorance far beyond the confines of a small Idaho logging town.

Posted in Education, History, Personal, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Social networking numbers ad up, even if they don’t add up

Posted by James McPherson on October 20, 2009

One of the things I talk about in media history is how each new form of technology brings with it an aura of credibility–as if because the information is coming via a new medium, that information automatically is more credible, more useful, etc. Now that students know that “the Internet” alone isn’t a credible source, though, I had hoped we were beyond that assumption of credibility with modern electronic media.

Or perhaps not, judging by the video below. A student sent me a link to the video, which is “wow-imagine-that” interesting and which offers a lot of startling claims and numbers about social networking (though it doesn’t seem to mention the criminal aspects). Unfortunately, with virtually no attribution of sources, we must take the video for what it’s worth, and I fear that most viewers will believe most of it. I do think that it’s worth seeing for anyone interested in marketing or mass media. That’s why I’ve included it below–with reservations.

One of my favorite claims from the video: “If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s fourth largest.” Of course it would also be the world’s most self-involved and boring country. One of the claims I would question–that Wikipedia is more accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica–apparently led to my favorite comment in response to the video: “i could hardly believe some of those statistics…until i looked them up on wikipedia.”

Others also questioned the numbers, leading the apparent producer of the video to respond in the comments section, “All sources for the stats can be found on my blog socialnomics[dot]com.” Like the video, the blog seems to exist largely as a means of promoting a book, but by going there I was able to find sources for the material. Sadly, those sources included Facebook (hmm, no incentive for them to boost their states), Huffington Post, an unidentified “metro newspaper,” wikipedia.org (really?), some that couldn’t be found, and a couple of blogs–and almost nothing I would accept from a college junior for a class paper.

It would be nice, of course, if  American viewers also had a better understanding of media literacy. One of the more amusing things I noticed: The most recent response–from a marketing firm–calls the piece a “brilliantly illustrated video that truly highlights the social media revolution that is taking place every hour of every day! Thank you so much for posting this important piece that I will continue to share when I guest lecture to entrepreneurs about marketing! Social Media is not a fad, and will only continue to evolve into exactly what people want it to be–free of ads and full of targeted and useful content that can better their lives.”

Free of ads? The video itself is an advertisement full of other ads, many of the comments like the one just cited are themselves ads, and various clickable promos run along the bottom of the screen throughout the video. Another of its stats: “Only 14 percent [of consumers] trust advertising.” Fourteen percent is too many, of course–but it also means that 86 percent shouldn’t trust anything in this video without doing some independent research.

Posted in Media literacy, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Twit litter categorized

Posted by James McPherson on August 31, 2009

Apparently 40 percent of Twitter tweets are “pointless babble.” That seems like an incredibly low figure to me, but then I think much of what passes today for mainstream news also qualifies as pointless babble.

 I’ve disgust … er, discussed previously my views about Twitter (also here, here, here and here). Still, I like the diagram below and thought it worth sharing/saving. It comes to me from Kevin Kelly, via Endless Emandation.

 

Posted in Journalism, Media literacy, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , | 9 Comments »

Twittering while Rome burns

Posted by James McPherson on April 3, 2009

I’m generally not convinced that the British are smarter than we are, despite their intelligent-sounding accents and even if they happen to think so. After all, England was the one country that mostly strongly went along with the Bush/Cheney War, and which has now pledged to join us in sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Still, one group of UK islanders impressed me with their smarts this week. Those were the folks who chased away a Google camera car that was to photograph their homes for Google Earth. Perhaps those people’s actions will someday keep me from getting a close-up view of a crime scene from my office computer, and the fact that they apparently were more elitist snobs than pitchfork-wielding mob and were acting at least as much to protect their wealth as their privacy takes some of the luster off of my admiration.

But the key fact remains: Even as a near-First Amendment absolutist who almost always thinks more information is better than less information (prompting my regular critiques of the Bush administration’s secrecy and sneakiness) sometimes we’d be better off if more often we just told more people–politely, of course–to please shut the hell up. 

I want information to be available, but that doesn’t mean I want to be buried in that information all the time. I agree with Kathleen Parker, who previously coined the term “Twitterati,” in her column of this week. She writes that information overload makes it difficult for us to put things in context: “It’s a toxic asset that exhausts our cognitive resources while making the nonsensical seem significant.”

In fact, even though Barack Obama has become famous for his use of technology, Parker notes that information overload may in fact be bad for democracy: “TMI [Too Much Information] may indeed be the despot’s friend. Keep citizens so overwhelmed with data that they can’t tell what’s important and eventually become incapable of responding to what is. Our brains simply aren’t wired to receive and process so much information in such a compressed period.”

Too much information distracts us from all sorts of things–prompting the phrase coined by my wife’s that I used as the headline for this post–while making us incapable of focusing on what’s important. It gives us too many reasons not to sleep at night.

Parker mentions a Columbia Journalism Review article that includes some fascinating statistics, and though she probably didn’t have the space for it in her column, one paragraph of the CJR article is worth repeating in full:

“There are more than 70 million blogs and 150 million Web sites today–a number that is expanding at a rate of approximately ten thousand an hour. Two hundred and ten billion e-mails are sent each day. Say goodbye to the gigabyte and hello to the exabyte, five of which are worth 37,000 Libraries of Congress. In 2006 alone, the world produced 161 exabytes of digital data, the equivalent of three million times the information contained in all the books ever written. By 2010, it is estimated that this number will increase to 988. Pick your metaphor: we’re drowning, buried, snowed under.” (emphasis added)

The fear of information overload is why I have an answering machine and caller ID. It’s why I don’t subscribe to any Twitter feeds, including those coming from volcanos or from Obama (and I hope someone else is actually tweeting on behalf of the president; I want him saving the economy, not giving me hourly updates on what he’s doing right this minute). It’s why I typically check my Facebook page three or four times per month, rather than three or four times per hour as some of my students do.

And it’s why even though I now own a cell phone, largely by accident, it’s never turned on unless I want to call someone. That happens about once a month, when I’m in a store and can’t remember what my wife asked me to pick up.

I also assume you don’t want to be buried in trivia. That’s why I don’t Twitter, even after learning that it might prompt Demi Moore to care about me. I’m not surprised to see an apparent Twitter backlash. It’s why I update my Facebook page even less often than I think to check it. And my recognition of the problem is why one of the texts for my media criticism is Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited, and why I advise students to critique media carefully, but also to take breaks from those media.

The combination of too much information coming at me and too much coming from me goes to an important question that I regularly pose to students, and which Parker asks in her column: “What if everybody just took a timeout?” That combination also is one of the reasons that I will stop posting regularly to this blog in about three weeks (other reasons I’ll explain in more detail as the date–April 22–approaches).

I’ve seen the value of taking time away from the media in very real terms. Most notably, once I went from being a newspaper editor and hardcore news junkie to living in a converted school bus on the Oregon Coast for more than a year. I intentionally avoiding watching television, listening to news on the radio, or reading a newspaper during that time (the Internet hadn’t yet arrived, and in those days I did my own writing on a portable manual typewriter).

My wife and I enjoyed the year tremendously. We read a lot, spent more time outside, and made many new friends. Interesting, I missed almost nothing of significance in the world that I otherwise would have known–which didn’t stop me from going back to a news junkie when I ended my media sabbatical.

Another example of the value of escape came several years later. After I had invested significant time and effort in my doctoral dissertation, someone on the other side of the country wrote about the same topic–and did it better than I could. Suddenly my topic was dead, my past year of effort appeared to have been wasted, and I began spending panicky long hours in the school library trying to come up with another workable idea. I spent hours on Web research (the Internet had arrived) and talking to people who might be able to help, burying myself in information for several weeks–to no avail.

And then I went on a backpacking trip with my parents and siblings in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. I didn’t feel I could afford to take the time, but I had promised to go, and my wife–no doubt sick of my self-pity–urged me to get away (or maybe just to get away from her; memory is a funny thing). A couple of days later, as I was standing hip deep in a cold mountain lake trying to entice a rainbow trout to smack a dry fly, a new dissertation idea popped into my head.

Importantly, the new topic had nothing to do with fishing, camping or the outdoors, and in fact incorporated much of the work I had already done. I needed to get away to see how to make it work. Or, as Parker put it this week: “If you’re looking for Eureka–as in the Aha! moment–you probably won’t find it while following David Gregory’s Tweets. Or checking Facebook to see who might be ‘friending’ whom. Or whose status has been updated. George Orwell is . . . More likely, the ideas that save the world will present themselves in the shower or while we’re sweeping the front stoop.”

Or, in the words of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby when we’re, “gone fishin'”:

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Past-cool Facebook turns 5, but offers little financial guidance to media

Posted by James McPherson on February 4, 2009

Another reminder of how fast time flies: The social networking site Facebook celebrates its fifth birthday today. Started by a Harvard student Mark Zuckerman (soon making him the youngest billionaire on the planet, CNN reports) and once primarily the domain of other college students, now it seems almost everyone who wants to connect with others or sell something is on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook,” or “We’re on Facebook,” several media leaders told the students in my recent Jan Term class visit to New York and Washington, D.C. As a further indication that social networking is way past cool, even I joined a couple of months ago. I remember to check in about once a week, and rarely update my status (using primarily as a way to direct people here), but CNN reports that according to Facebook, some 15 million users update statuses every day, adding more than 850 million photos per month. The average user has 120 “friends,” many of whom they’ll be soon able to follow even more closely and creepily.

The story credits social networking with making Zuckerman rich and helping make Barack Obama the president of the United States. Yet even Facebook does not demonstrate a workable “business model”–a term my students also heard repeatedly, as virtually all of the mainstream media struggle to make an acceptable profit in the Internet world. Adam Lashinsky of Fortune magazine reportedly told CNN that Facebook “is selling advertising, it is bringing in revenue but it’s not wildly profitable even if it is profitable at all.”

And that’s the problem all of today’s media face–the need for money from advertising, or something to replace that income stream, via a medium via which people are accustomed to getting content for free. If Facebook, now on the downside of cool, can’t do that, the prospects aren’t promising for mainstream news media sites.

Of course, more people may be looking to the Web for news after their TV service disappears with a shift to digital (a shift likely to be postponed later today), but in fact people continue to value news. Getting people to a news site isn’t a significant problem. Getting those people to pay for anything is the problem.

Same-day update: Congress approved the digital television extension today.

Next day update: Time disses a new Facebook trend.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Twits, tweets and Twittering: Anti-social networking

Posted by James McPherson on January 5, 2009

Apparently the Twitter accounts of Barack Obama, Bill O’Reilly, CNN anchor Rick Sanchez and at least 30 other people were hacked into today. Also affected was the account of Britney Spears (and no, she probably was not the inspiration for the name of the social networking site).

“The attacks came after Twitter suffered a vicious phishing scam over the weekend, during which everyday Twitter users may have been tricked into logging on to a page masquerading as the Twitter front page, according to the site,” CNN reports. In other words, if you communicate via Twitter, you may want to change your password.

As I’ve said before, I don’t get the appeal of Twitter–though I am impressed with Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page editor Mark Trahant’s use of his 140 characters to produce a four-line poem each weekday. His latest “NewsRime,” which is related to today’s news: “Oh, NO! SPAM on Twitter/suffice to say the taste is bitter/140 characters has been such fun/please don’t make this a medium to shun.”

Not great poetry, but then as I’ve also noted previously, few things worth saying or knowing can adequately be expressed in 140 characters, and most of those should be said more personally. If Fox News really wants to admit that O’Reilly is gay, for example, he probably would do it himself on his own show, not via Twitter. And the message would spell his name correctly.

Posted in Journalism, Media literacy, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »