1.06.2009

A New Lens for Media

In the past, I've been critical of technology's inability to provide us with deep insights about ourselves. I've also worried that too much of technology is designed as an inward spiral, forcing us deeper into the medium instead of encouraging face-to-face conversations. But this post is about a time where technology did offer an insight (or at least a good reminder), and it was a surprisingly optimistic one.

A little background.

Recently, I've become very aware that media makes me surprisingly pessimistic about the world. In a previous article, How We've Created A Culture Where Kids Need Facebook, I wrote about the increasing paranoia of parents in regards to protecting their children. But the issue extends much further than that. Did you know that there were 8,000 fewer homicides in 2005 than in 1991? Did you know that that in the early 90s more than 9.5 people of every 1000 were victims of a homicide, but in 2005 that number was reduced to 5.6? Did you know that teen pregnancy is more than 20% lower than 30 years ago?

But wait. I thought the world was going to hell in a hand basket. Aren't all teenagers sexual maniacs? Isn't Mr. Jones' gardening business only a convenient cover for a Joker-esque madness?

Isn't everyone a Joker these days? Photo by Jason Mouratides

My point isn't to make this country sound peachy and comfortable (we all know it's not). But I do hope to help us understand that our opinion of the average Joe has been severed by a dramatized, ratings-driven media (And yes, I mean Joe the plumber, miner, construction worker, and every other -er that was uttered during the presidential elections). Thinking about my own tendencies, I know that I can be quick to transform people on the street into villains worthy of cinematic scheming.

So where does social media come in? What have I found out? What has social media helped remind me?

People are overwhelmingly nice.

That's it. That's the big revelation.

It's not revolutionary. It's not terribly shocking. But it is refreshing. I don't corral a group of people on the street and ask for help. For most of us, anything beyond asking for directions is an exercise in the art of awkwardness and discomfort. But if the internet community is any indication of reality, then there is a significant crowd of people who enjoy helping, who want to have engaging dialogue, and who genuinely care.

Ask for directions in an active social network? I receive them within 30 seconds. Wondering what the best seafood restaurant is in Harvard Square? I have a general consensus within the next five minutes. I take this for granted. For me (and for a lot of us), the challenge is reminding myself that there are real people behind the profile pictures. The challenge is fully understanding that these are the same people that I walk past every day in the Boston Commons.

I think we've worked ourselves into a bit of a double standard without even realizing it. We look through the dark lens of media to distort our depiction of humanity, but don't let the positive examples have the same impact on our perception. It reminds me of a friend of mine who likes to wear his sunglasses both day and night - during day we look dark, during night we look black. I'm not pretending that everyone online is good. We all know they aren't. The problem is that we let the misfits ruin the fun for everyone.

The Challenge.

So why don't we ask for help more often? And I'm not just talking about the "I'm lost, help me find my way" type of help. I mean, the "Where can I get a good burrito?" type of help, or "Any good used bookstores around here?" type of help. Or lets extend the idea even a little further. Ask a stranger about that book he or she is reading. Tell a stranger a fascinating quote you stumbled upon.

I know, I know. That last bit sounds awkward. You were probably whispering in your head, I would never do that. But I want to whisper back, why not? I sit on the subway system and watch hundreds of people pretend like they are too busy to chat or even acknowledge each others' presence for 20 minutes each and every day. Then, they go home, turn on their computer, and start sending Tweets to an audience they've never met before. They start participating in a dialogue with complete and utter strangers.

And they love it.

Just keep pretending there is no one else there. Photo by Gustavo Verissimo

I'll be the first to tell you that, so far, I don't practice what I preach. I can be very shy around strangers. I tend to think, Well, I know he doesn't want to be bothered, so I won't bother him. But I will tell you this: I've started to look at people a little bit differently. I've always been the type of person that wants to "see the best" in people, but when I'm bombarded by suicide bombings, masochistic murders, and outright belligerence in the media, it is hard to really believe it. It is hard to let my thoughts sink into reality. Social media gives us a new lens through which we can view people with remarkable optimism - one where people (for whatever reason) feel compelled to demonstrate a friendly nature in outlandishly open ways.

And I don't know about you, but I sure wouldn't mind seeing that friendliness, that assistance, and that camaraderie trickle onto the real streets and highways of this country.
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3 comments:

Tony Ramos said...

I agree. Most people are mostly good, and we find ourselves yet again at a confluence of technology and zeitgeist. True, the media will always point out the detractors (e.g. http://snurl.com/9k8oh [www_nytimes_com]), but if I were to tweet you the name and address of a nonexistent burrito joint, I get few lulz and little audience--no incentive to be mean.

Twitter, then, brings us a self-selecting community of nice. Mean people don't tweet. This is good, but as Twitter grows, watch out for increasing amounts of bad, as we've recently seen.

Evan said...

Tony, Thanks for the comment. I agree that we'll be seeing a stronger presence by the "mean people" in Twitter in the near future. I see that presence in other virtual mediums (I've recently been fascinated by the personalities in Second Life). But even in Second Life, I've been impressed with how nice the nice people are.

Outside of the internet, I just don't use people enough as a resource.

Lisa Hickey said...

I love that idea -- that by connecting with people on all sorts of levels through social media, you begin to see even more of the great sides of people in the real world. And I love the way sites like Twitter turn some of the old social conventions on their heads. Arent' interested in what someone's saying tonight? No problem! Don't respond. No one will even notice! Imagine trying to do that at a real party...
Thanks for the interesting read and thought provoking post.
Lisa