The Frightening Power of the Social Internet

These days everything is “social.” CNN wants me to know how many people have “liked” an article, the New York Times has embraced Twitter, and you don’t even need to go on TV to get your 15 minutes of fame … now all you need to do is cause a controversy on the internet! Strike a metaphorical match, and voilà, before you know it the smoldering fire you lit has everyone buzzing. Until the next #topic comes along that is.

Yes, the social internet has taken our Attention Deficit Society to all time highs … or is it lows?

Truth be told, in some cases this “hot news” ADD is a good thing, because it brings a sort of crowd-sourced justice to the main. But when it crosses into the dark side it can go very dark, very quickly. Before you know it things are spinning out of control.

Sometimes the burning controversy is accidental. No one goes looking for it, but it blows up in the face of the unsuspecting nonetheless. Say, for example, you are an editor at a small regional cooking magazine laboring under the impression that everything on the internet is “public domain”. You act on your assumption, and reprint something you found online. Then when the person whose article was used accuses you of plagiarizing, you reply indignantly via email that the article you copied needed so much editing that the original poster should be thankful for the work you did! You sign off … and then BOOM! The story explodes. And before you know it, the world can’t log into any social media sites without hearing the story of how Cooks Source plagiarized, then insulted, a blogger whose recipe they used. The story gets picked up, takes off and burns uncontrollably. The outrage it draws is impressive and pushes the story all the way from a few tweets to the front page of CNN.

That’s the power of the social Internet!

In this case the controversy is justified: The website Cooks Source was “borrowing” copyrighted material from sites like Food Network and reposting them without permission. Judith Griggs, the Cooks Source editor, was called on it, and was in response rude and ignorant. Because content was effectively stolen by Cooks Source, Griggs and the site are not only being figuratively raked over the coals, she and the Cooks Source site are probably facing legal action as well. There’s a story there.

But there is a second story to be told. It has to do with how fast the story spread and how it took on a life of its own in a manner which would not have been possible just a few years ago. The timeline is remarkable; the episode started on November 3rd, and just two days later Cooks Source has been castigated to the point where they may never rid themselves of the stigma. In other words, it took just 48 hours for the story to go from a few people’s livejournals to CNN. That’s social networking in action; you have been warned!

At other times, the controversy is less an accident and more a carefully crafted and courted play for attention. But while it may have been sought out, it often still manages to backfire. Take Marie Claire for example. Marie Claire thought it would be a good idea to run a column titled “Should ‘Fatties’ Get A Room (Even On TV)?” It is a harsh title, and the actual article was just as harsh as the title implied. Needless to say, it hit a fairly big nerve. People were outraged, and the anger took off like a speeding train. Marie Claire had to hastily apologize but the damage had been done. It’s one thing to not like a show, or find the leads characters on a show unattractive, but it is quite another to go on about weight issues in a manner that shows disgust and disdain for anyone overweight.

Clearly Marie Claire knew the title and the article would be controversial; they likely WANTED it to be. After all, boring humdrum titles and articles don’t go viral in the way magazines and blogs pray they will. Yes, they probably thought they were taking an approach that would generate links as others cited the article. That, in turn, would drive traffic to their site … and traffic means dollars.

They went looking for the attention, but I suspect they never imagined the backlash that came. It was FAST and FURIOUS. People dropped subscriptions, and well-known female authors took the time to slam them … HARD. There is a story there.

But there is a second story to be told here, as well. Like the Cooks Source incident, it has to do with the speed in which the controversy erupted and how quickly the story took on a life of its own. This timeline is remarkable as well: The post went live on October 25th, and by October 27th Twitter was buzzing and the author was apologizing. Less than 48 hours after posting the story, the surrounding controversy had a life of its own. 48 hours!

And with good reason. This isn’t just a case of bias; 8 million people in America struggle with an eating disorder, and the complications from it can be fatal. The most at-risk group is girls 12-25, which also happens to be Marie Claire’s audience. This is not merely a case of an author and magazine acting irresponsibility, this is very much a matter of life and death for a shocking number of women. As a result it is hardly surprising that the article generated such an explosion of anger! But in a pre-social networking era (even just five years ago), the story would have gained momentum much more slowly, if at all. In 2010 it took just 48 hours.

In both of the previous cases the article that went viral was part of a professional or pseudo-professional Web site or publication.

But personal posts can also ignite and burn the author or subject with equal ease these days. Sarah shared a blog post she found during her morning browsing about a woman whose young son wanted to dress as “Daphne” from Scooby Doo for Halloween. The woman speculated in her post that her young son might be gay. Why? She wrote about his excitement choosing to dress up as a woman he admired for Halloween, and how the reactions of other mothers seeing him dressed this way seemed to indicate that this might be the case. She went on to write that she loves her son and is incredibly proud of him regardless of his sexual orientation. She not only shared how cute he was in his costume, but went on to write about her distress over his fear of being teased for it and the way in which his peers’ parents reacted even worse than the kids did! Her entire position is summed up pretty well with this quote:

If you think that allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to ‘make’ him gay you are an idiot. The idea is absurd to begin with. Moreover, if my son is gay that’s okay. I will love him no less. I mean… your son is dressed like a ninja for Halloween and I am not worried he will grow up to be an actual ninja am I? So back off.

The post went up, and within a few hours it was all over Facebook. Everyone thought it was great to see a parent being supportive of their child expressing themselves. It went “viral” and even made its way to Good Morning America. All this within a few days of the post going up. There is a story there.

But as is so often the case, a well-intentioned post, once viral, went negative as easily as it went positive. CNN picked up the story and brought on an “expert” who fanned the controversial flames by claiming a parent’s “worst nightmare” would be having a gay child. His comment on the viral post then went viral in its own right. Almost immediately, he was slammed and a short time later was forced to amend his comments. There is a story here, as well.

But there is also a third story here. Social networking helps stories go viral with ease these days; once a story takes on a life of its own, even something that started as a sweet and positive post can turn ugly, and there is NOTHING anyone can do about it when that happens. That’s how a woman’s blog post about loving her son “no matter what” got turned into fodder for negative, wrongheaded commentary by talking heads within days. 31,000+ comments later, and it is hard to see the innocence of the initial post any longer.

And that is the point here. The viral nature of social networking means that stories may take off faster and farther than ever before. In the process, however, they can have an uncontrollable ripple effect — the result of which can be devastating.

That was the case with regard to Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate and classmate videotaped him having a romantic encounter with another man and posted it to Twitter. It was bad enough that the roommate invaded Tyler’s privacy, but once he shared that invasion on Twitter there was no stopping it. It spread and so did Tyler’s humiliation.  That’s the scary side of social networks; not only did the other students violate Tyler’s privacy, but with the technology of social networking it took just a few clicks for them to share that violation with the world.

Tyler’s story itself went viral. And for good reason. The tragedy of his suicide exposed just how easy it is for bullies to harass others online. Social networks let them spread the ugliness, often times anonymously. It is far too easy to be impersonal, to hide behind a screen and to do or say things one would NEVER do or say in person. I have to wonder, would Tyler Clementi’s roommates have recorded him if they had actually had to face him? Would they have shown the video in the cafeteria if they also had to hold the camcorder and let others know what they had done? Would they have taken out ads in the school paper to publicize Tyler’s encounter? Would they have invaded his privacy and shared their homophobia if, in the process, they had to own up to being biased peeping Tom’s?

I suspect not, but even if they had been willing to do any of those public things personally, it would have taken much more effort, and in the process they might have thought twice about what they were doing. Instead, the ease getting streaming footage on a webcam and then posting about it on Twitter made it possible for them to invade Tyler’s privacy and put the resulting footage up on the net seconds later with just a few quick mouse clicks.

Social networking isn’t a bad thing. Facebook lets us keep up with friends. Twitter lets us share the moment with others. Four Square let’s us recommend our favorite hangout to others. But let’s not forget that social networking is a tool and, like any other tool, HOW we use it determines whether it does good or harm.

The power of the words and images that we share to do good or harm is nothing new. As these statements from ancient wisdom literature show, it has long been a concern.

1. Do not speak well of your friends, for although you will start with good traits, the discussion might turn to his bad ones. (Talmud)

2. I can retract what I did not say, but I cannot retract what I have already said. (Solomon ibn Gabirol 1020-1057)

3. A teacher once taught, “There are people in the adjoining room preparing a telegram. Notice how carefully they consider each word before they put it down? That’s how careful we must be before we speak. (Haffitz Chayim)

4. Another teacher taught “everything has a purpose.”

“What can we learn from a train?” asked a student.

“That because of being late one minute you can lose everything.”

“What can we learn from a telegraph?”

That you pay for every word.”

“What do you learn from a telephone?”

“That what we say here is heard there.”

No, the issue is nothing new. But imagine a telephone that is immediately connected to everyone who has access to the Internet. Words and images that used to take time to get to one person now get to millions instantly.

THAT is the power of social networking.

That is also its danger.

Categories: Editorials

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5 replies

  1. Very, very true Carly … I remember the Marie Claire thing well – not least of which because they had just recently gotten in trouble for over-zealously photoshopping models not just to do ‘typical airbrushing’ but also take young women who were already too thin and make them impossibly thin.

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