The Problem with Social Media

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The ability for anyone to publish on the Web is a good thing. Many voices can contribute to the marketplace of ideas when they may have otherwise remained unheard. However, the democratic promise of blogging is often illusory or counter-productive.

Anecdote 1

For several years I spent several nights and hundreds of dollars to attend a public affairs lecture series sponsored by the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. I saw Bill Clinton twice, Al Gore and a host of Israeli Prime Ministers speak (my least favorite sessions). The best evenings were spent when multiple experts shared the stage. Some of the most memorable evenings included:

  • Newt Gingrich and John Edwards
  • James Carville and Mary Matalin
  • Bill Maher and Dennis Miller
  • Ann Coulter and Al Franken
  • Simone Peres and Henry Kissinger (Kissinger was profoundly boring and Peres quoted President Polk in a sentence)
  • Bill Maher and Tony Snow
  • Wolf Blitzer, Cokie Roberts, Charlie Rose and Tim Russert
  • William Bennett and Mario Cuomo
  • Arianna Huffington, Paul Begala & Tucker Carlson
  • Maureen Dowd, Donna Brazille, Michael Murphy
  • Anderson Cooper and Walter Cronkite (Cooper was a buffoon)
  • Prime Ministers Jose Maria Aznar (Spain), Ehud Barak and Sir John Major
  • Terry McAuliffe (DNC) and Ken Melman (RNC)
  • Gwen Ifill, Judith Miller, Cokie Roberts and Helen Thomas
  • Bill O’Reilly and Alan Dershowitz

Aside from the opportunity to hear experts and leaders speak, the format of these events made them quite special. Each speaker had 20 minutes to speak and then they sat down together for a conversation, often moderated by the President of the university who asked the sort of questions one might expect from a Talmudic scholar. When the university received complaints about the off-color language used by Bill Maher and Dennis Miller, a University spokesman quoted a disturbing Pew poll indicating that a majority of Americans thought it was fine for government to censor newspapers and affirmed the university’s commitment to presenting ideas in the authentic voice of the speaker.

Anecdote 2

As a keynote speaker, I take my obligations to entertain, inspire and inform quite seriously. That is why I decided a few years ago not to take questions at the end of my keynotes. I urge conferences to provide a space for me to engage in conversation with attendees for as long as they’re interested after the keynote, but in a separate venue. My experience led me to conclude that taking questions during the keynote results in one of the following undesirable results:

  1. The “my principal is a jerk speech”
  2. Insane pronouncements like, “The Jews were responsible for 9/11,” from the floor
  3. The deadly sound of crickets as nobody speaks up

Any of these outcomes has a deleterious effect on the session and is the last impression left with audiences.

So, what do these two anecdotes have to do with social media?

Plenty!

Read MacArthur Genius educator Deborah Meier’s brilliant essay, More Villainous Than Hypocrisy, in the Bridging Differences “blog” she writes with Diane Ravitch each week. Bridging Differences routinely includes the most thoughtful discussions of education policy to be found anywhere. Ms. Meier, one of America’s leading educators and successful urban school reformers, deserves a lot more credit for the role she played in Dr. Ravitch’s recent conversion.

Like a great lecture, play, film, concert or art exhibition, Meier’s recent essay provides enough “food-for-thought” to nourish you for a week – that is until you click the “comments” link on her blog post. The potshots, political manifestos and attacks leveled at the author and her ideas is nauseating and adds nothing whatsoever to the issue.

Education Week provides a great public service by publishing Bridging Differences. They would provide an even greater service by allowing the work to stand for itself and turn off comments.

The lesson I learned during the fantastic lecture series discussed above is SHUT UP! Let the experts speak and converse without being interrupted by crackpots with an ax to grind. You are not their equal just because you bought a ticket or can use a Web browser. A handful of miscreants do not have the right to diminish everyone else’s experience.

Even if not disruptive, most blog commenters (IMHO) offer very little value to the “discussion” or consider the comments of others. Flame wars are much more likely than insight.

I first sensed that blogs were BS back in 2003 when I found myself sharing absolutely brilliant, earth-shattering, election-winning advice for Governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. With each passing day, I was increasingly disappointed to not receive a phone call from the candidate or have my suggestions result in dramatic strategy changes.

Then suddenly I realized why nobody was reading my profoundly erudite blog comments. I wasn’t reading any of the other thousand commenter’s brilliant comments. Nobody else was either.

If you wish to critique something someone else published on the Web, perhaps you should share your views on a personal blog and let the work of others stand for itself.

What do you think? You may flame me below. Riff-raff welcome.

Comments

8 Responses to “The Problem with Social Media”
  1. Stephanie Baier says:

    My only comment… I will tweet this.

  2. Conversations tend to go sour when one or more participants has no context or understanding. I’m not opposed to non-experts asking thoughtful questions or even dumb questions, if they are genuinely interested in discourse. The problem with the larger online spaces is that there too many crack pots and no way to sort the gooks from the intelligence. Gawker, I think is working on a comment system where you basically have to earn the right to comment or speak based on certain guidelines.
    http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2010/05/how-should-news-sites-deal-with-comments/

    Unfortunately, the current system is basically all or nothing. And yet some of the best learning for me have been in conversations like the one you started at TechLearning re: IWBs and numerous examples on Will Richardson’s blog. Occasionally, I even stir up even interest on my own to warrant meaningful dialogue.

    I find little or no value in new site commenting. Too many people who are only interested in slander and wise cracks. But that’s not the case everywhere.

    BTW, I’m working on a blog post based on a recent comment of yours. 😉

  3. I think all three of you make good points.

    First, the work of experts should speak for itself and there are far too many crack-pots trying to make waves while also attempting to remain anonymous. I’ve had experiences similar to yours, Gary, and think that there’s a time and a place for conversation with the expert.

    Second, I think Twitter and Facebook have increased in value as spaces for genuine conversation – as pathetic as that sounds. The truth is that reputation and straightforwardness seem to breed better when anonymity is eliminated (or at least reduced). There’s also something about the non-committal feeling of 140 characters that seems to hold peoples’ attention.

    Third, I’ve also learned a lot by commenting on posts just like this one. Sometimes writing the response solidifies learning better than reading the post itself. Nevertheless, I’ve toyed with the idea of forcing trackbacks like D’Arcy Norman did by also turning off comments on my blog, but noticed that it wasn’t long before he turned them back on.

  4. Carl Anderson says:

    I don’t know, Gary. I wonder what Papert would say about social media. Seems to me he hinted in The Children’s Machine that this affordance of the web would be profoundly transformative for learners and educators. I see your point but in singling out individual blog comments as a basis to declare social media bunk you may be missing the forest from the trees. Perhaps we are still socially in a collective social media adolescence. Funny thing about adolescence is there is no clear deliniation between it and maturity. By the time we collectively reach it, we probably won’t be aware of the transition and we likely won’t much care.

  5. admin says:

    Carl,

    I won’t speak for Papert, but suspect that he would share my concern that the power of computers is being diminished to the narrow role of information appliance in education. There is a lot of talk about “community” in discussions of social media, but the important concept of “practice” as in “community of practice,” is often absent. In other words, since knowledge is a consequence of experience – of doing – what is the practice being advanced by the “community.” The Internet is useful for sharing what you have done or constructed, without that it’s just tin cans and string.

    Papert might also tell us that much of the hype around “social media” in education suffers from “verbal inflation.” (a term he introduced about a half dozen years ago.

    Adolescence is a good way of describing much of what I see in the blogosphere.

  6. Victor says:

    In your “The Problem with the Social Media” (hyperlink) I completely agree blogging can be used for good things; however it can also be used for bad things. First, blogs often don’t voice much of an opinion, making a discussion really hard to make up:”Even if not disruptive, most blog commenter’s (IMHO) offer very little value to the “discussion” or consider the comments of others. Flame wars are much more likely than insight.” Blogs today for some people can be absolutely useless; we have the power to voice are opinion and collaborate with others but some of us don’t take advantage of what we have. There are many people in my freshman class who just put garbage on paper and say it’s done. Next, blogging is a great way to get multiple views on a controversial issue. We can talk to people around the world and tell them what we think. For example I can blog about the controversy of the death penalty and get opinions of many other people around the globe. Last, “Then suddenly I realized why nobody was reading my profoundly erudite blog comments. I wasn’t reading any of the other thousand commenter’s brilliant comments. Nobody else was either.” If nobody reads your posts or comments on them, it makes writing a complete waste of time because you had a goal for your post that probably wasn’t even close to how it actually is. When you post you want it to change something rather it be to help poverty, fix economic problems or anything like that, however normally nothing is even changed because it’s not even read sometimes. In conclusion, what’s the point of a blog if nobodies reading it?

  7. Victor says:

    In your “The Problem with the Social Media” I completely agree blogging can be used for good things; however it can also be used for bad things. First, blogs often don’t voice much of an opinion, making a discussion really hard to make up:”Even if not disruptive, most blog commenter’s (IMHO) offer very little value to the “discussion” or consider the comments of others. Flame wars are much more likely than insight.” Blogs today for some people can be absolutely useless; we have the power to voice are opinion and collaborate with others but some of us don’t take advantage of what we have. There are many people in my freshman class who just put garbage on paper and say it’s done. Next, blogging is a great way to get multiple views on a controversial issue. We can talk to people around the world and tell them what we think. For example I can blog about the controversy of the death penalty and get opinions of many other people around the globe. Last, “Then suddenly I realized why nobody was reading my profoundly erudite blog comments. I wasn’t reading any of the other thousand commenter’s brilliant comments. Nobody else was either.” If nobody reads your posts or comments on them, it makes writing a complete waste of time because you had a goal for your post that probably wasn’t even close to how it actually is. When you post you want it to change something rather it be to help poverty, fix economic problems or anything like that, however normally nothing is even changed because it’s not even read sometimes. In conclusion, what’s the point of a blog if nobodies reading it?

  8. Josh Levy says:

    In your “The Problem with the Social Media” I completely agree blogging can be used for good things, but it can also be used for bad things. Blogs don’t voice much of an opinion, making a discussion has to have physical noticing of what the other person is thinking to humble the conversation. Next, blogging is a great way to get multiple views on an issue. We can talk to people around the world and tell them what we think. Last, “Then suddenly I realized why nobody was reading my profoundly erudite blog comments. I wasn’t reading any of the other thousand commenter’s brilliant comments. Nobody else was either.” If nobody reads your posts or comments on them, it makes writing a complete waste of time because you had a goal for your post that probably wasn’t even close to how it actually is. what’s the point of a blog if nobodies reading it?