Facebook And The Arc Of Coolness

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the future of Facebook. Millions of teenage users apparently are no longer using the social media network. Some Princeton researchers have concluded that social networks are like communicable diseases that infect people rapidly then just was quickly burn out; they predict Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base by the 2015-2017 time period.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is not as cool as it once was, but that result always was inevitable — because nothing stays ubercool for long. The equation of coolness is simple: young people add to coolness, and old people who aren’t rock stars detract from it. Once Moms and Dads and people in their 60s started to use Facebook to post boring pictures, send inspirational messages, and attempt to make “hip” comments about their kids’ drunken selfies, any self-respecting youngster would realize that the coolness luster was gone . . . and move on to the next big thing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook is doomed. My guess is that Facebook wants to end up as a kind of utility — that is, an invention that initially is cutting-edge and used by only a few people and later becomes so broadly accepted that it is unconsciously integrated into everyone’s daily life, like the electric light or the telephone. iPads might not be as cool as they once were, but does Apple care if they are being sold by the millions to uncool people in the business community who love the idea of a lightweight device that they can customize to meet their unique business and personal requirements?

The key for Facebook, or for that matter any other form of social media, is whether it can make that transition. If Facebook sticks around and keeps that critical mass of users, will those coolness-sensitive teens return to the Facebook fold when they hit their late 20s and realize that the social media network is a really handy, one-stop place to keep in contact with high school buddies, college friends, and former co-workers, remember their birthdays, and have some sense of what they are doing with their lives?

Line-Drawing And Violent Content

If you establish a social media site, and allow the world at large to join and post, you’re running a risk.  Some people will post pictures of kittens, old family photos, or corny but uplifting messages.  Others, however, may want to post other things — things that are disturbing.  So you establish a content policy — but where do you draw the line?  That’s an issue that Facebook is wrestling with these days.

IMG_5117Facebook has an extensive set of “community standards” that address topics like “nudity and pornography,” “violence and threats,” and “hate speech.”  One topic is “graphic content.”  As Facebook puts it, people use the site to share their experiences and thoughts about issues, some of which “involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism.”  Facebook distinguishes between sharing such content for purposes of condemnation and sharing “to celebrate or glorify violence.”  Facebook asks users to share content “in a responsible manner” and warn the audience about any graphic video.  If Facebookers report that certain content violates the community standards, Facebook decides whether to remove it. 

The most recent controversy involves a video showing a woman being decapitated.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and others criticized Facebook for not removing the video and for apparently loosening its standards on hyper-violent postings.  Facebook reacted to the criticism, removed the video after determining it improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence, and issued a “fact check” statement to explain its new approach and its decision.  

It’s the right decision, of course — but it shouldn’t have been a hard decision to make in the first place.  There is a big difference between disturbing images of starving children that sharpen an appeal for contributions to a hunger relief charity and a video of a planned execution by beheading.  Line-drawing can be tough, but I would certainly draw the line so that videos showing real people actually being killed, tortured, or horribly injured are excluded, whether their accompanying text purportedly “condemns” such action or not.

Mean Girls

There’s been a lot of talk about “mean girls” and bullying lately.  The terrible suicide  of a 12-year-old Florida girl, who jumped off a tower after being tormented by schoolmates, is just the latest in a series of incidents that have people questioning whether young girls — and for that matter, young boys — are just getting meaner.

Some of the prevailing wisdom is that the internet, and social media, have contributed to the relentless bullying.  The notion is that what used to be one-on-one bullying can quickly become a much wider form of inflicting humiliation.  Rather than just mortifying someone on the school bus or in the gym class locker, the thinking goes, social media allows the bullies to broadcast and heighten their taunts and attempts to shame and ridicule to the point where the object of the bullying feels that death is their only escape.  The youthful targets doesn’t quite realize that their teenage years will pass, that the school year embarrassments will fade into distant memories, and that the jerk who is torturing them doesn’t represent what lies ahead.

I think social media is a big part of the problem — but also for a different reason.  It’s harder to be mean to someone to their face.  When you are posting something insulting or humiliating about someone on Facebook, you’re typing something into a computer.  When you’re texting a mean picture, you’re thumbing a message into a smartphone.  It’s all an abstraction, where the power trip can be taken without directly experiencing the reaction.  You don’t see the hurt that your words or actions inflict; instead, you just get a few LOLs from the sycophantic friends in your clique.

I’m convinced that only truly evil people would be capable of tormenting someone, in person, to the point of suicide.  If I’m wrong about that, and we actually are raising a generation of kids so malevolent and disconnected from human decency that they don’t care about the consequences of their mean-spirited actions, then we’ve got much bigger problems as a society.

Anti-Social Media

Does social media make people ruder?  One survey says that is the case.  More than 75 percent of the people surveyed say they think people are more likely to be insulting on-line, and almost 20 percent say they have seen people end their “real” relationships after a social media spat.

I don’t know how scientific the survey is, but the results really shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Incivility increases with each step we take that is farther away from face-to-face interaction.  That is because it is not easy to be hurtful and insulting to someone’s face.  You see their reaction, physically, and you think that you wouldn’t want someone to say something mean to your face, either.  The natural tendency therefore is to tone down the rhetoric.  It’s somewhat easier to be rude over the phone, but even then you can hear the hurt in the other party’s voice.

But as you move away from immediate, personal contact, the visual and verbal cues that encourage civil behavior vanish.  Any employment lawyer or HR manager will tell you, with a shake of their head, that people write incredibly harsh, stupid, and ill-advised things in email messages, and the same is true of social media.  People act in the heat of the moment, without reflection or any brake on their offensive impulses, thinking they are being clever when they are really just being crass.  Discourtesy and angry reactions are the inevitable results.

Social media has a lot of advantages as a means of keeping in touch with people, but it also provides a ready mechanism for thoughtlessness on a large scale.  We’d all be better served if we paused before hitting the “post” button and considered how wounding our words might be.

The Steubenville Rape Case

If you Google “Steubenville” today, you’ll get hits on countless stories from around the world about Steubenville, Ohio.  Unfortunately for Steubenville — a depressed town in eastern Ohio — they aren’t positive stories.

The stories are about the verdicts in an awful rape case.  Two players on the Steubenville high school football team, the “Big Red,” were found guilty of raping an inebriated 16-year-old girl after an underage drinking party and then taking pictures of the victim.  The two players were sentenced to at least one year in juvenile prison, and one received another year for taking photos of the victim.

The Steubenville rape incident touched a lot of hot buttons.  Are prosecutors taking rape cases seriously and pursuing rapists as aggressively as they should?  Are high school sports stars in small town America treated like they are above the law?  How much underage drinking is going on in high schools?  How could young people be so desensitized that they would not only commit or witness a crime, but then post photos and tweet about it?   And the hot buttons continue to be pushed.  When a CNN journalist reported on the verdict yesterday and noted the emotional reaction of the defendants and the impact the verdict will have on their lives, she was castigated by some for being a “rape apologist.”

This is an ugly story all around, one that makes you sick to your stomach.  It’s a story that makes you think we need to restate, and return to, basic principles.  Rape is a crime, and rapists must be apprehended and punished.  Children need to learn concepts of basic human decency.  Star athletes must be held to the same standards of behavior of the rest of us.  Parents need to monitor their children’s activities.  And no one should be above the law.

Three Debates Down, Two Weeks To Go

With all three presidential debates in the books, we can fairly ask:  what is the role of debates in a modern election?  According to the polls, the pundits, and the talk about momentum, the first debate this year was a significant game-changer in favor of Mitt Romney.  Why?  Was it because President Obama turned in a performance generally regarded as desultory, or was it something else?

I didn’t think the President’s performance during the first debate was as bad as it has been depicted to be.  I think, instead, the key point is that people forgot the presidential debates are one of the few political events that are unfiltered.  The candidates get a rare opportunity to speak to a national audience, in an unscripted setting, without any yakking by pundits or talking heads.  And the national TV audience for the debate, moreover, is interested enough to pick a presidential debate from all other programming options in the modern video world, and therefore probably consists mostly of people who are likely to vote.

In this election, President Obama’s campaign strategy had been to run countless attack ads painting Mitt Romney as a heartless, out-of-touch moneybags who was George W. Bush, Jr.  When all you saw was the ads, the strategy worked fine.  But Romney’s debate performance was inconsistent with the ads.  People watching thought:  “Hey, this guy isn’t so bad.  He seems pretty reasonable and knowledgeable.  Maybe he really can get us out of this mess.”  And with that unfiltered realization, millions of dollars in negative ad buy by the President’s campaign went out the window.  In fact, Romney’s performance was so contrary to the ads that it probably not only helped Romney but also had a negative impact on the credibility of the Obama campaign commercials going forward.

Another reality is that the after-debate period is longer and more diffuse.  People get their sense of how the debates went not just from a few talking heads on the major networks, but from countless TV stations, blogs, comedy shows, Twitter snarf, and social media sites.  It may take days, and a few choice “Facebook ads” or Daily Show mocks or heavily reposted blog items, before people settle on what really happened.  People in the spin room immediately after the debate no longer control public opinion, if they ever did.

In this election, we now turn to the “ground game” and the contest of which campaign can do a better job of getting their supporters off their duffs and out to the polls.  Political operatives, however, will no doubt study the debates in the 2012 campaign and draw some significant conclusions.  First, if you are going to go negative on your opponent, make sure you aren’t attacking on character or personality grounds that can be readily disproven in a 90-minute debate; otherwise, you will be flushing your hard-earned campaign contributions down the tubes.  Second, don’t forget the after-debate period.  As those precious undecided voters are trying to decide who did better, they’ll be looking at a lot of things — and if your candidate came across as disinterested and disengaged, or clown-like, or phony, it will eventually be detected and outed . . . and that will ultimately be the prevailing view of the masses.

It’s National Empty Chair Day! Or Is It National Invisible Obama Day?

The world moves so fast these days.  Thursday night, Clint Eastwood gives a weird, unforgettable performance at the Republican National Convention during which he talks to an empty chair that is supposed to be President Obama.

That day and the following day he gets alternatively ripped and praised, depicted as senile or as crazy like a fox.  And then, social media takes the story deeper.  People from across the political spectrum seize on Eastwood’s empty chair theme.  Democrats mock him with “Invisible Obama” pictures and tweets on Twitter.  Republicans respond with “empty chair” tweets and blog posts.  And then someone declares today to be National Empty Chair Day, and from coast to coast Romney supporters are taking photos of empty chairs in various poses — and the press starts writing about it.

Clint Eastwood therefore has accomplished something beyond the powers of mortal men.  He’s brought Republicans and Democrats, conservative “wingnuts” and liberal “moonbats” together, by making the empty chair a potent political symbol for both parties.  Put chairs out on your front lawn (as some of our neighbors have) and let people guess whether you are marking National Empty Chair Day, or Invisible Obama Day . . . or maybe you just plan to sit in your yard later, with the bare feet in the grass, on the last day of a three-day weekend.  Whatever you mean, why not be part of a goofy national craze?

In the meantime, we can all marvel at the speed of the modern world.  It used to take a week or a month for fads like hula hoops or pet rocks to sweep the nation.  Now, it just takes a camera, a twitter account, and a potent symbol, and within minutes people are off to the races from sea to shining sea.

To Our Reader(s) In Burkina Faso

If you’re thinking of starting a blog, I recommend WordPress.  It’s inexpensive, it’s easy to use — even for a non-computer type like me — and it gives you interesting information about your blog and its readers.

Recently, for example, WordPress started providing statistics on the locations of our readers.  Today I learned that we had a hit from Burkina Faso.  How cool is that?  The fact that someone from a faraway country read something on our humble family blog — although I don’t know what — shows how the internet and social media are changing the world, bringing people closer together, and allowing them to communicate in new and useful ways.

Intrigued, I decided to do some reading on Burkina Faso.  It is a landlocked west African nation that borders on Ghana, Mali, and the Ivory Coast.  A former French colony, it achieved independence in 1960 and has been governed for more than 20 years by a president who came to power in a military coup and has won every election since.  Its capital is Ouagadougou (pronounced woggadoogoo).  French remains the official language.  The majority of the people in the country are Muslim.  It is a poor country, with an economy based on cotton and gold exports.  Its national anthem was written by a former president, who also happened to be an avid guitar player.

Welcome to our reader in Burkina Faso — and thanks for your interest.  It’s given me a reason to learn a little bit about your country.

Dipping My Toe In The Twitterverse

I’ve heard about Twitter for months, but I’ve never been tempted to join in — until now.

Perhaps it’s because I just don’t get it.  With all of the social media, networking, and connectedness that already exists, why is another form of computer/smartphone-based interaction needed?  Haven’t we covered the waterfront already?

Plus, Twitter seems so self-consciously new wave — almost like it’s an inside joke being played on the world.  Tell us where you are and what you’re doing at any given moment, but use only 140 characters!  Follow friends and celebrities as they go about their humdrum lives!  The fact that a Twitter message is called a “tweet” just heightens my lack of enthusiasm.  It’s too painfully cute for my tastes.

But now I’ve learned that some people I actually am interested in following have Twitter accounts and, at least occasionally, may say something worth hearing.  So, I’ve joined Twitter, and I’m going to follow them.  Does that make me a Twit?

Driving Versus Facebook

The Dayton Daily News reports that fewer Ohio teenagers are getting their driver’s licenses these days.

The data shows an almost 10 percent drop in the number of licensed 16- and 17-year-old Ohio drivers, and a nearly 5 percent drop in 18-year-old licensed drivers.  These statistics mirror a national trend — a trend that the auto industry, obviously, finds troubling.  If teens aren’t clamoring to use a car, the demand for cars will fall.

Why have teenagers become less interested in driving?  Some speculate it is attributable to a poor economy and a lack of jobs.  Others suggest that teenagers are simply satisfied to interact within virtual communities via social media like Facebook.

If the latter point is true, America has changed a lot since I was a teenager in the ’70s.  Of course, Facebook didn’t exist back then, but even if it had, it would never have taken the place of a driver’s license and a car.  A driver’s license meant you had passed the first milestone on the road to adulthood.  A driver’s license and car meant you could get a job and start earning your own money.  A driver’s license and car meant you could take a girl on a date without needing your Mom to act as chauffeur.  A driver’s license and car meant you could tool down the road in your own rig and crank up the radio as loud as you wanted when you heard the first riffs of ZZ Top’s La Grange.

Facebook is great, but driving was . . . freedom.