Joe Scarborough's WildEyed Facebook Freakout: Fear Disguised as Disgust?

By Daniel J. Cohen

(In February of 2011, Joe Scarborough wrote a Politico editorial on the downside of social media. His approach smacked of a somewhat old world understanding of interaction. Written here is what I wrote as a response to his statements. For a more thorough understanding of the debate, feel free to read his original article laying out the case against Facebook¶s influence on our social interaction at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0211/49004.html). The discussion that pits internet rapport against interpersonal communication is no longer new. The internet has been popular for almost two decades. Forums have been around from the beginning, and e-mail entered the popular sphere almost immediately. As for social networks, places with profile pictures have been around since the late-nineties, and Facebook and MySpace are intensely pervasive. Rare is the someone who doesn't have a personal profile on the web. The move is admittedly modern and admittedly significant. Employers have rejected applicants over statements, pictures, and videos posted to social networking sites. College students now spin their own reputations into monstrosities without even knowing it, all in an effort to encourage the "everybody's famous all the time" atmosphere. If your world depends on image popularity, you may find this revolution helpful. Those that refuse to join the fury leave the rest of the territory open to ownership by way of image fray. In other words, the rest of us- Bloggers, Tweeters, chain emailers, Facebook Noters, and everyone else who wants a web presence for one reason or another- fight for space. A competition of sorts is afoot. It may not scream loudly, but it is inherent. I liken it to capitalism as a whole. A marketplace of ideas or objects is privy to bloodshed of products and thoughts. That's the way the egg breaks; there is no healthy method by which to make an omelet. Just as winning a war involves fallen soldiers, personal advancements can take up the space of someone else. Not everyone out in internet land chooses the competition route on the WWW. Some are happy to merely post their personal lives so that their buddies can take a looksie. Showing Grandma pictures of the newest baby is easy (as long as Dad can help her use the computer). The most major criticism of all this is that we have lost our personal touch. The world takes place outside of a computer. The revolution supposedly starts with real, interactive dialogue, rich and textured, melting in our mouths and warming

our bellies. The most important places in the world are run on personal interaction rather than cold, internet-based, calculated, bordered communications... so say the critics. A particularly strong criticism came earlier this week from former congressman turned TV personality pundit Joe Scarborough. Oddly enough, Scarborough put his criticism in the opinion section of Fox News, apparently forgetting either many of his own assaults on new age technology or the assaults once made on internet culture. While interpersonal communication, some say, deadens our emotional connections, internet news, others say, leads to a lack of credible information. One wonders if Scarborough believes his message would be more powerful on TV, or in print, or in a town hall. Furthermore, one wonders if he finds disconnected media to be detrimental. If so, why use it? For money? That's as far as I will go in claiming the column is close to severe contradiction. The rest of the issues surrounding the article center around some of the misunderstandings that come with the slamming of online social media. First, we should collectively acknowledge the downside of our online experiences. Aside from the normal hassles of everyday life (invasive advertising and generally rude people), the internet provides a place where messages are subtly amplified by taking on the appearance of media. Publicity can lead to greater humiliation than it has in the past. Intimacy is immediate but (usually) shallow. Communication sometimes seems to be thrown at space rather than directed at people. Flesh is replaced with visual representation. These fears sound familiar if you know just a little about communicative history. Plato once implied that writing would introduce a forgetfulness and a vicious method by which to fabricate the truth. Surely the telephone was an exchange of multi-sensed visits for pure auditory perception. The fax machine, e-mail, chatrooms... all of these have, in the past, led to less "personality" in our interactions. Hell, even the handwritten note's replacement of the loving embrace has dramatically altered our world. There are several immediate differences between the interpersonal conversation in the real world and those of the telephone, written note, fax machine, etc. 1) The technological difference has made for greater speed and less senses involved in the connection made between the parties.

2) The internet is a form of truly imitated interaction. Because of the speed with which a profile is updated, it can be viewed as a snapshot of a person. To that end, the net is more likely to replace our interaction with others than create it. Combined with the speed with which messages are sent and the speed with which others know about our updated lives, we now have an arena where everything evolves at the speed of light. Some (like Scarborough)have pointed out the possible horrors of the technology wildfire, but there are great advantages to what we are seeing that are never mentioned by the opponents of expansive media. SecondLife, an online community that simulates the movement of actual characters in a way similar to The Sims, has done wonders for autistic interaction. Then again, most of us are not autistic. When we communicate, we shouldn't do so as though we were (unless it's for experimental purposes). When you stand back from it, that matter seems not only tangentially related to the real issue but also more of an attack on the one way technology that has blown up over the last hundred years. Movies, radio, video games, and television have all turned Americans into less interactive, more zombie-like creatures. What do we make of those media? Sure, the movies and television shows can serve as the basis for family time, and radio takes up time that would otherwise be spent purely in drive mode, but you could argue that the television sits two people next to one another while they watch other, mostly fictional people interact. None of that is to say TV, radio, and movies lack benefits. Aside from the obvious artistic value, these technologies have connected us with the world by sending us information on a large-scale from a faraway place in a small amount of time. FDR's famous fireside chats, made possible only by the wonders of radio, inspired the country. We can now watch the most important speeches of the President live from the executive podium. Every year, the President issues a state of the union address on national television that almost all Americans can see. So what appears to be the difference between the positive television out there and the negative television? I would say it depends on the level of education and useful knowledge passed on to an audience member. You could capture that as a plus of almost any communication method out there. When you meet an idiot by the water-cooler, you will find your conversation less fulfilling than when you meet an

intelligent person who knows how to get the point across. There is a difference in that a person with little information might still be emotionally beneficial in person, but there is still that key similarity between the two situations. As for knowledge on television and radio, Scarborough himself treads in water often maligned by some pretty worthy and worried critics. The left-right media combat worldview has often been pinpointed as a manipulative lens through which to view American politics, and all major cable news networks have, at one point or another, been guilty of overusing that lens. I think news debate shows can be helpful when they are done properly, and Scarborough's show does have some value in and of itself. I wonder, though, if he took the time to say the same about Facebook and social media. All I see are the criticisms, and several of them are cheap shots. Consider some of his arguments: -One argument is based on the cyber-bullying of a Rutgers University student who was recorded having sex with his lover and displayed on live video streaming for the public to see. The student wound up taking his own life. -Another argument states that Americans waste 700 billion minutes per month on the site. -Scarborough also references a handwritten note from Ted Kennedy and how and why it would not have been as effective as a "status update telling to 'Hang in there, fella.'" -The express claim that some emotions cannot be expressed in 140 characters or less. These are all cheap shots, to be taken in order: 1) Blaming the bullying death of a student on the internet and Facebook seems a bit of a cold link, especially since there is no indication in any of the news articles I have read of the incident where the video was actually streamed on Facebook. The only use of Facebook was to send a suicide note shortly before the student leaped off the George Washington Bridge This was a matter of the internet as a tool for display. One wonders if things would have been any different if the student had been taped by video camera and displayed on the side of the campus library. I

would even go as far as to say entertainment that makes out this sort of behavior to be comedic to fulfill college comedy plot-lines could be as responsible or more responsible for the incident as anything else... not that I blame violence on popular culture, but it's a more logical case. Speaking of blaming violence on popular culture, the Columbine incident took place far before Facebook ever hit the American youth scene and those two kids put bullets in fifteen people as a retaliation to bullying. The Virginia Tech shooter, the recent Arizona shooter... these people all have connections to the internet, but none of them were any crazier than the Lee Harvey Oswalds of the world. 2) The idea that we are wasting time on Facebook is clearly supported by the bajillion mini-games, idiotic status updates, videos, pictures, and other imagery placed on Facebook at every moment of every day. A question we might ask after establishing that fact is, "What do we do about it?" One might look first to see whether or not the Facebook trend is reversible. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I doubt it. Social media is now in most of the "developed" world and doesn't show much of a sign of slowing down, especially in America. So then what do we do to avoid the procrastination and lifelessness that occurs? We take it upon ourselves to trade real information and create useful, lively debates. By using the power of social media for forces of good rather than evil, we can establish a better, more beautiful, more poetic world, with representations that supplement rather than replace live interaction and all of the other forms of communication we use. 3) I understand that the handwritten note of Senator Ted Kennedy probably rang a bell in Scarborough's heart, but I think his followup of an equated status update of "hang in there, fella" is fallacious, misleading, abusive, and false. That might sound harsh as a response to an emotional argument about the emotional content of a very personal moment of the writer, but it is precisely because of the demagoguery used by Scarborough that this claim has to be dismissed with such brute force. For one, the satus update is not the equivalent of a personal message in Facebook land. Anyone on Facebook can tell you that. Not to sound like a new age cybernerd, but Facebook has these things called "personal messages." They allow you to send a "personal message" that can have deep, textured meaning, much in the way that editorials on the internet can have deep, textured meaning. Words can be powerful in almost any form. They allow you to send more than four words. Had

Ted Kennedy been a Facebooker and a person who would use the medium as a means of social support for those that are grieving, he might have sent Scarborough a long, thoughtful, personal message by way of the net... and Scarborough would be the bad guy if he thought that was cold, not the technology used. For the millions who have established great friendships or key business or fallen in love online, this is a point of pure condescension. 4) The idea that we must communicate in 140 characters or less is a simplified false analogy of internet/Facebook to Twitter. As a Brobdingnagian internet writer, I nearly take offense to that statement. Twitter is the only tool that forces you into that kind of communication box. It has also been credited by some for helping facilitate revolution, but not everyone agrees (Naseem Nicholas Taleb said- ON FACEBOOK,- " So, pace the technoidiots, it is very likely that twitter (the noisiest media) slowed down the riots in Egypt." The key sticking point in the entire argument was the fact that Facebook can never truly replace face to face communication. The danger, it seems, is that it threatens to do so and in fact has in some cases, just as television has threatened to, and in some cases has, replaced real life for some members of the population. So how do we deal with the impending and currently occurring interconnected, less personal world? The first move would be to use it for good and avoid its evil use. That decision is made on the most personal level. I use the internet to spread ideas about our times. Our times, as are any times, are hard to read. No one is a prophet. Our times, as are any times, are the most significant influence on the way we deal with our world and the way our world deals with us. In case that is not clear enough: NEVER lose touch with the times in which you live any more than will be inevitable. Always do your best to stay in the same mix. While face to face contact will always be around, some pretty important decisions are made by way of telephone. Facebook is becoming more influential in our world. While that could change, that is the time we are in now. Wall Street is run online. The most recent President ascended to the White House at least partly because of a healthy online strategy. Most importantly, Facebook is a part of our world. How you approach it is up to you, but ignoring it or attacking it is asking for tremendous trouble.

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