Thursday, 26 February 2009

The Mail, the messenger, the media

There seems general agreement that the Mail's 'Facebook could raise your risk of cancer' headline was even more ridiculous than the 'Social websites harm children's brains' one that rapidly followed it. Certainly the Mail's reporting wasn't terribly nuanced (in a blog I have to tell you that I'm understating). Much of the response was well argued, and engaged with the topic amirably (eg Jackie Ashley) - but much also seemed no more nuanced and no less ridiculous than the Daily Mail pieces themselves.

A few things struck me. First, the strength of feeling this topic generates - the first comment on this post arrived when all I'd posted (accidentally) was a title I'd abandoned by the time the comment arrived. The risk is that I leap to my own position without actually listening to what's being argued. Certainly I came across that.

Second, and linked to this, we tend to shoot the messenger. The fact that the piece was in the Daily Mail instantly rendered it poisonous for some. Now, I don't much like the Daily Mail, but neither do I much like some of the stances and weak arguments I find in the paper I read every day. I read it because of the quality of much of its writing, not because it agrees with me. There were a lot tweets and blogs that merely focused on the author's well-established dislike (however justifiable) of the Mail, and seemed to use that to avoid engaging with the underlying argument.

Third, I'm struck by the "either / or" nature of much of the comment. So, maybe it's not that kids go out less because they spend time on Facebook OR that they spend time on Facebook because they go out less. Maybe both are true, mutually reinforcing. Maybe social media allow us to connect and interact in truly valuable ways previously impossible, AND, maybe there could be downsides as well. Seems ironic to me that media that have arisen with post-modernity (both / and) are used so extensively to promote modernist perspectives (either / or).

Finally, as a number of pieces highlighted, research is ongoing in this area, and it's complex. But you don't have to look hard to identify research that points to changes about which we might at the least be ambivalent. So, for example, research suggests Generation Y prefers to use blogging, texting, and IM in preference to the face to face and telephone communication preferences of preceding generations. We also know that communications effectiveness is highly dependent on non-verbal elements and tone of voice (the 7%-38%-55% rule). Put these together and we have workforces that are increasingly able to connect and communicate widely and rapidly (good), but who prefer to use communications media that are less effective for communicating emotion, lack of congruence, and nuance (bad). It's both / and again.

What do I want to learn? Like much of the above, it's pretty obvious. Work hard to engage with arguments, neither trumpeting my established positions, nor shooting the messenger. Recognise the potential for 'both / and' positions. And go gentle on the social media revolutionaries. Chesterton spoke sense: "The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right." I find it very easy to be wrong about both.

1 comment:

rjmunro said...

I think there is a deep misconception in this whole thing. Kids are not going out less because Facebook is popular. Facebook is popular because kids are going out less, mainly due to overhyped fears about stranger-danger etc.

I did actually (briefly) speak to you in person about the content of this blog the other day. :-)