Sunday, June 21, 2015

Viewpoint: Facebook and the age of instant opinion

Having been mildly the focus of collateral damage from Facebook commentary recently, I'm prompted to take a look at some of the ways this particular social medium affects our lives, writes Brian Byrne.

I've been wary of it from the beginning. I don't get involved in discussion on it, apart from occasional comments on family posts (family is scattered in Ireland, Europe, America and Australia, so that's probably OK).

In relation to the Kilcullen Diary and my website, I use Facebook and Twitter only to spread headline links to whatever stories are published. If any conversation ensues, I rarely respond, unless an essential clarification is needed. So yes, I use Facebook and Twitter. But on the margins.

What bothers me mostly about social media is the Too Much Information aspect. If I watched my Facebook news feed in total, I'm seeing too much of the minutiae of people's lives. People with whom I have no direct connection. Too many personal pictures. Too many very personal thoughts. Too much running off at the keyboard in a way that people wouldn't do in public discourse, not least because most of those they would meet in public simply wouldn't be interested. Or wouldn't like it.

There's a thing about social media that people feel they're not going ass-naked public in what they're posting. Because they are not face to face with those reading it, and certainly not with those who may be the subject of their posted thoughts, they feel at a remove.

But they aren't. They can hurt people at that virtual distance. They can hurt themselves too, by making very public their own thoughts that they would normally keep to themselves. Most of us would not like to have in the public domain a significant portion of the ideas that flit through our minds in any given day. But Facebook is thinking in public. And an activity where you don't always anticipate the effect on others, and on yourself, of the immediacy that it offers.

Most of us can have some negative reaction about somebody, or what somebody says, or some event, on the spur of the moment. But it used to be by the time we meet up with those involved and have a chance to express those thoughts in person, we'd have had time to digest what was on our mind. Might even have had further information that would alter those thoughts. Or at least we might have met on the street and worked it out in discussion. With Facebook you can lash out immediately. Leaving a lot of time for potential regret.

From my broadcasting days I'm very familiar with the 'written on the wind' syndrome. Say something on radio, and it can't be taken back. But unless somebody was interested enough to listen to a playback, or what was said had legal potential and was repeated in court cases, it disappeared. On Facebook, it doesn't. Press 'Enter' on your comment, and it stays there. To remind. To repeat. To flagellate. To be brought up to the top of the news feed whenever anyone else 'likes' or comments on it. To be there to haunt you even if you have changed your mind. Even to bring you to court if what's said is defamatory.

Those are the more serious issues. But what more often makes me uncomfortable is reading the too frequent bad language, and regularly the wrong use of real language. The mis-spellings. The mis-used words and phrases. The stuff that gives away education deficiency that's at the very least surprising. OK, maybe that sounds pompous. But I value education, the ability to communicate that is its most basic foundation, and as far as I know those are serious values in the schools that many of the Facebook contributors I'm thinking about went to.

If there are people who ask to be 'friends' with the Kilcullen Diary's Facebook page, I confirm those requests if it seems we have a number of people in common. But I suspect that I have subsequently blocked from the news feed at least half of those, because the content of their contributions embarrasses. Embarrasses me. I don't want to know about their intimate lives, their arguments, their prejudices.

I've been a journalist for some 40 years, at local and national, international sometimes, levels. I've been in print, photographic, broadcasting, publishing, internet. I'm still active in all those areas. I use Facebook, I use Twitter, I use blogs. But I do so with the same kind of care that has meant nobody suing me for defamation over those four decades. Not so much because I'm careful not to be sued, but because I care about what I say, what I write, what I publish. That what I write is as correct as I can ascertain. And that, most of all, it doesn't hurt anyone undeservedly.

I'm old school journalism. Where I'm not the story, but who and what I write about is. Today we have everybody journalism, thanks to social media. It's a development that has no doubt expanded the democracy of opinion and reportage at global levels. And has also allowed all of us as citizens to say our piece on lots of important stuff. I welcome it. I think it's very important to today, and to our future in an increasingly complicated world.

Trouble is, that important stuff can get lost in daily Facebook or Twitter feeds that are too full of dross we'd never inflict on our friends and acquaintances whom we meet on the street. Which is why I still believe there's a future for old school. For those who think before they hit the keyboard, who think again before they hit 'Send'. The medium is not the real message. Nor does it always deliver the correct one.