A General Lack of Expertise


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Now that anyone with the time and interest can command an audience on social media or via blogs, we are faced with an interesting phenomena. Many people who command large audiences don’t know what they’re talking about. I may well be one of them.

 

When I offer opinions on politics, or engage in ridiculing people I’ve never met, dissing nations I’ve never visited, and continue to spread rumors that I’ve only recently heard or read, I’m probably not making the world a better place. I’m just another noisemaker, a cricket sawing his legs together on a balmy night. But unlike the cricket, I may actually be doing harm by echoing (Facebook calls it “sharing”) the opinions of others.

 

Some things are true and others aren’t. There may be important differences that are too subtle to be made explicit in a catchy headline or alarming photo. Often, the gap between true and false is small enough so it doesn’t matter a whole lot, but at other times it might make all the difference in the world. It might result in nuclear war.

 

So maybe sharing my hastily acquired and sloppily reasoned opinions isn’t really a civic duty at all.

 

What do I really know about Putin or Trump? Israel and Palestine? Iran and Iraq? I met a guy from Syria once. He had me over to his house for tea. Does that make me an expert on Syria?

 

If  this shocking lack of expertise were confined to me, the problem could be quickly dealt with. Delete my Facebook and YouTube accounts. Erase this blog. But it’s not just about me, and in fact, I’m not even a major player. I’m just an retired guy with too much time on his hands and too many prejudices to be able to claim an open mind.

 

There is no gatekeeper anymore. Broadcasting has been supplanted by the Internet, and there’s no process for telling fact from fiction. Walter Cronkite was a newsman. I’m not. He had a staff of fact-checkers. I don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DISCOURSE REVIVED


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Social media is not designed to promote debate. The audience one finds there is hand-picked, pre-selected. It’s preaching to the choir. Because Facebook is the way most people interact with others at a distance, its very popularity has come to diminish the role of discourse in what we imagine to be a free society. Indeed, many young people do not understand the role of argument or discourse, imagining that their manufactured beliefs and shopping preferences define them and their peers.

In much of the developing world free speech is at a minimum and a free press almost nonexistent. Democracy can’t function because loyalty is the supreme virtue, and extreme fidelity doesn’t allow much room for divergent opinions.

The country I came from used to pride itself on being a democratic republic, but today most people hate politics and would rather submit to a benign dictator if they could only find one.

Because I’m an expat and far from home, my main contact with others online is via Facebook, which was developed as a way to help college students find like-minded friends. It is all about peer groups, and finding your “peeps.” If you express an opinion that sets you apart from your peers, you will eventually be “unfriended.”

One of the explanations for Facebook’s financial success is that by being structured in this way, it can deliver advertisements to targeted groups, about which much is known because the members volunteer tons of information about themselves with every post and every reaction to a post.

This is fine if that’s all we want from communication, but I suspect that many of us, especially the more mature members would enjoy discussing complicated issues without the onus of being “popular.”

Could Facebook be modified to encourage rational discourse about complicated issues, rather than encouraging superficial and infantile reactions? Maybe this could be done with specific pages that would serve as forums to address specific issues. Politics. Banking. Theater. Literature. Music. Art.

Despite the trivial nature of most Facebook posting, its dominance could be tapped for the greater good. Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty word, and the lowest common denominator in the Arts doesn’t always need to command the greatest amount of attention. Facebook is just a tool, one that could be modified to be more effective for the greatest number of people. It could facilitate real, complex communication instead of simply pandering to the herd.

What Do I Gain From All the Time I Spend on Facebook?


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The most impressive outcome of the explosion in social media (Facebook, Twitter) is the stunning lack of discourse it engenders. For all the people who spend so much time expressing and sharing their opinions, no one is really saying much that is original to that person, or new. That which is offered rarely leads others to change their opinion. It’s all broadcasting and no receiving. No time for contemplation or serious consideration. That which is shared has often not been read by the person sharing it. It’s as if we were all standing on bridges tossing pieces of paper and photos into a fast running stream below. Much ado about nothing.

I suppose all these regurgitated opinions are a step up from sharing pictures of the meal you’re about to eat, or your cat sleeping in a box, or yet another selfie, but the biggest improvement in mass communications in history has resulted in very little ground-breaking improvement in the trade of ideas and information. In fact, social media isn’t about trading information, or discussing ideas. It’s a pep-rally. Preaching to the choir.

Some people are using the Internet to make hay while the sun shines, but they are few and far-between. Some of them fancy themselves “Digital Nomads,” but I fear most of them are living off trust accounts and playing at running an Internet business. One reads about young millionaires who maintain wildly successful YouTube channels, but I lump those with the Kindle writers who write best-selling vampire young adult fiction as people I no longer compare myself to even in my worst moments.

I’m not implying that my Facebook posts are any more important or true than others’, but I probably do post more original content than the average user. I take lots of photos and write a lot. Is this a public service or a lonely cry for help? Got me.

I have never photographed and posted a picture of something I was about to eat. For that, I am proud.