Sarah Hill, I admire your push to stay on the cutting edge of technology. I think it’s wonderful that we live in a day and age in which we have not only the desire but also the means to communicate with individuals who do not share a cultural background with us. That said, how does relying on a social networking tool affect the way we will foster journalistic relationships in the future? How does seeing someone through a screen differ from seeing them in person? I don’t mean to knock social media – only to put it in some sort of perspective.
While how is still being hotly debated, everyone can agree that social media is changing the way we interact with one another. I no longer have to speak to someone to know if they’re in a relationship, what their favorite band is or, especially around Homecoming, what their preferred alcoholic beverage is. That’s a pretty huge disincentive for me to approach someone in class or on the street to say hello. Why ask them about their life if I can read all about it on the internet?
Social Media Examiner published an article last year detailing four ways social media is influencing how we engage other people. Of their list – including a rapidly growing pool of contacts, the unconscious transmission of feelings present in your network and an unhealthy tendency to compare yourself to those on your friends list – I found one phenomenon, the overestimation of intimacy in your relationships, the most shocking. And for journalism, it’s the most potentially threatening.
The idea of excellent journalism requires media to provide as complete a context as possible. This context includes a variety of voices and any surrounding details that may be pertinent to the story, e.g. historical context or political environment. Speaking to stories about people specifically, I think connecting via social networking runs the risk of drawing conclusions we aren’t necessarily qualified to make. For example, if I want to interview someone and I find them on Facebook, I might be tempted to scroll through their profile. (Let’s be real: I would definitely scroll through their Facebook.) In doing so, I might instantly feel that I know the person a little better because I know they’re inspired by Charles Bukowski and identify as Pastafarian. I might then be moved to make certain judgments without asking the person to contextualize these details, and those potentially unfair judgments might influence my writing. The more you know, some people say, but in my opinion, I really think it should be the more you ask…
With services like ChatRoulette, TokBox, Skype and now Google+, visually connecting with anyone, anywhere in the world requires only a few mouse clicks. Suddenly this stranger appears on the screen and you talk and you inevitably think, “We aren’t so different, this Israeli/Russian/Brit/Frenchman and I.” Or maybe that you’re totally different. Or maybe that you are best friends with this guy from Boston who wants to Hangout with a classroom full of kids half his age because he’s taking time out of his schedule to video chat with you. You’re special. I think that’s sort of an oxymoronic thought process actually. Video chatting is so easy, so common but it seems so much more significant because you’re face to face with someone. I think it’s especially easy when you’re putting yourself in the same space as someone, even if not physically, to mistake common, mundane exchanges with intimacy and to draw conclusions about things you might not understand based on what you’re seeing alone. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my education in journalism, it’s to avoid assumption like the plague.
So no, I’m not suggesting we scrap video chatting and social media outreach and the Internet and we should probably smash all of our iPads while we’re at it and you know I don’t think notebooks can be trusted either let’s pick up rocks and chisels. All I’m saying is, to use the tools available to us responsibly, we should be aware of their hidden pitfalls and do our best to counteract them preemptively. Use of social media shouldn’t be a deterrent from walking up to someone the old-fashioned way. It should actually inspire us to question more, to strive to know our subjects more intimately. Your favorite video game is Super Mario 64? Why? What kind of experiences have you had with the game? Do you play often? Did you get all the stars? Can I play with you?
I’m making myself miss my N64 with this example. I need to go lament its untimely death, so I’ll leave you with this: nothing we read or see or video chat with online should be taken at face value. Ask, ask, ask!