Opinion | Jared Nelson
The following piece was written by a Clarion staff member, but does not represent the views held by The Clarion. If you agree, disagree or would like to submit a letter of your own, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a big fan of social media. I believe social media, in many of its forms, has the potential to be a tremendous force for good. Facebook and Twitter are a great way to keep in touch and spread information, and blogs are useful not only to the audience but also to the author as a way to put his or her thoughts into something constructive.
That being said, I’ve begun to notice a trend across social media that is cause for concern, especially for individuals like myself studying journalism. People are losing their ability to discern if someone’s words are opinion or reliable truth.
Take online quizzes for example. First, nobody cares to know “What Muppet are You?” or “If you worked at Wal-Mart, what job would you have?” (both actual quizzes).
Why someone would desire to be analyzed by a simple algorithm with such a limited number of outcomes is preposterous. To re-post such a process is to give it credibility as a valid source of psychometrics, delegitimizing actual psychologists and psychiatric tests like the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. Psychologists go to school and get degrees to assess personalities through merited practices with defined methodologies and credentials.
I understand these quizzes are largely for entertainment, and to give credibility to them as anything more than that is asinine.
And then there are blogs. Personal blogs are one of the most unrestricted platforms for expression in our world. Everyone has a voice, meaning it’s our job to determine whose voice we lend our ears. Former media-relations mogul Richard Edelman once said, “In this era of exploding media technologies, there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself.” While it’s true that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, some opinions are more credible than others.
It’s almost daily that I scroll across links to posts on my Facebook feed with titles like “23 Reasons Everyone Needs To Stop Getting Married,” “6 Reasons to Have 6 Kids” and “18 Reasons to Date a Vegetarian.”
These types of posts on Buzzfeed or someone’s blog are a dime a dozen, and they all bear a similar blueprint. A provocative title lures in readers to create page-hits which boosts ad revenue for the website. It doesn’t matter how hokey the content is, each click allows them to charge more for ad space on their page. Essentially, it is the supermarket tabloid for the modern day—a cheap, nonsensical form of entertainment that is enjoyed on impulse.
Once you’re on the page, their reasoning is backed up by murky statistics and unsubstantiated claims. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these pieces is the byline, where it will say the author’s name beside something vague like “community member.”
Oftentimes the things we read on the Internet are published anonymously or by authors who don’t list their credentials. Instead of reading those things with a critical eye, we just assume that the author is an expert and we take what he or she has to say as truth. Uninformed opinions are now elevated to a level equal to that of professionals who have licensure and do research.
The rise of personal blogs is leading to the downfall in professional journalism, as consumers cannot differentiate between the legitimacy of the content of a blog.
A 2010 Gallup Poll revealed Americans at an under 25 percent confidence in newspapers and television news, and Pew Research shows faith in traditional news media plummeting while Internet usages rises, and that 42 percent of people believe that news organizations hurt democracy. That percentage is doubled from the mid-1980s, before the proliferation of the worldwide web.
On the other side of the coin, citizen journalists allow us access to information that the mainstream media either lacks the budget or the fortitude to cover. This was true in the case of events like Hurricane Katrina, where bloggers and videographers had access to information before news media could get there. It must be noted that many of these reports inflated body counts and spread rumors about rape and violence in the Superdome that were later revealed not to have occurred, according to Andrew Keen’s 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur.
Access to blogging technology and the ability to create professional-looking websites creates the sense we’re all capable of producing professional quality journalism. A good-looking website makes it all the more difficult to discern what is being produced in a newsroom and what is being produced on a desktop in a basement.
As Keen explains in his book, “According to a June 2006 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 34 percent of the 12 million bloggers in America consider their online ‘work’ to be a form of journalism. That adds up to millions of unskilled, untrained, unpaid, unknown journalists, spewing their (mis)information to the cyberworld.”
The solution to this problem is simple. As consumers, we must take a second to consider the source of what we’re reading. We ought to read things with a critical eye and consider their legitimacy before reposting. It’s becoming more difficult to determine what is out there just to entice us and what is there to enlighten us and enhance our lives, but it’s a skill worth developing. Once we do, the worldwide web will be a better, more informed place. Maybe then we can move on to discussing why someone would jump into 50 degree water to get out of donating to cancer-research and post it to online.
Check out Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff for more information on the impact emerging media technologies are having on our lives.