140 Characters

Pinwheel Galaxy, Smithsonian Institute,  Chandra X-ray Observatory Center

Pinwheel Galaxy, Smithsonian Institute, Chandra X-ray Observatory Center

A few days after the Twin Towers fell in 2001, I wrote in my newsletter to teachers: 'Don't slow the adoption of the Internet out of fear it will be misused. Redouble your efforts. Teach your students how to use it well and for good. It is their future.' 9/11 taught us early on that a tool that many of us thought so promising could foment danger as easily as it could inspire. That truth, multiplied a million fold, remains with us today.

This week I applauded the power of social media to encourage constructive national debate as widespread moral outrage forced change to the new laws affecting the GLBTQ community.  But then I had to challenge myself - do I see this as positive only because the apparent peanut-gallery consensus mirrored my own politics? I want to believe that electronic dialog can build a more civic and intellectually engaged society. But I stress the word 'dialog.' Civil discourse in this new media context has the potential, at least, to reinvigorate and enhance our democracy. But it has to be dialog and it has to be civil. In a world of increasingly biased and divided soap box broadcast news, unfiltered, real-time social media have the potential to  foster open public debate, but only if we resist the very segmentation that the technology enables.  

Recent headlines provide cautionary tales of social media's power, in fact, to have the opposite effect - to destroy individuals, perpetuate misinformation and radicalize young people to do unspeakable acts.  Monica Lewinsky's recent TED talk proved an eloquent, if somewhat surprising reminder that online bullying is prevalent and dangerous, yet she ends on a positive note not unlike my own: Don't hide. Use the new media to change our world and our culture. "Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop," she cautions, and it's up to us to stop it. Lewinsky urges that social media, in fact, be used to promote and reinforce a "culture of empathy." Jon Ronson, author of a new book "So You've Been Publicly Shamed," has also been making the media rounds, recounting horrific stories of bullies that troll the Internet looking for people to destroy. Those of us willing to express opinions in front of strangers, he warns, should be aware of the possible consequences. Starbucks' recent, rather awkward attempt to foster dialog on race is a case in point. It was not the most elegant effort, but it probably didn't deserve the vitriol that overwhelmed Howard Shultz's Twitter account within hours. And he was a grown-up. The amount of damage that can be done electronically  to vulnerable children by their peers hits the headlines with regularity. 

Though I've been careful to conduct my social media life so as to avoid its darker side, and I'm truly charmed by the ability to commune with friends on FaceBack, too much of what I experience on Twitter, at least, seems either banal, snarky, self-promoting or voyeuristic (and, yes,my own feeble offerings fit into a few of those categories, too). But just often enough, one, two or even three little 140-character idea bombs remind me what power social media has to move civic dialog (and art and literature) forward.

A statistic I often see quoted is that only ten percent of social media participants create all the content that the rest of us consume and pass on to our friends. What would happen if the other ninety percent of us more consciously spread our own personal talents and perspectives across these platforms? After all, in a world where children can watch beheadings online as easily as they can see inspiring live video from the Space Station, what is our obligation and our opportunity to overwhelm them with reason and beauty? 

I have decided to try to learn this verbal shorthand, to contribute to the vibrant social dialog that surrounds us, to move, occasionally, from the ninety to the ten percent.  I do it out of both curiosity and hope. I'm curious to learn Twitter's structure and strategies, to understand the audience on Tumblr and to interpret the social norms of Instagram. It's not easy. It's a time-suck, frankly. It makes me feel old and there lurks some little fear of being judged by both friends and strangers. Maybe I should leave well enough alone. But for me, opting out has consequences. With so little ability or opportunity to combat the negative forces abounding in this world, I have to believe that the simplest and smallest act of engagement has an impact. Words matter. As does civil discourse. As does creativity. It matters to the life I inhabit and the legacy I leave my grandchildren. It signifies my confidence that the tools we use and how we choose to interact allows our better natures to emerge. Can we build community in this dangerous world and in so doing, set an example for our children? Don't expect too much, but I'm going to give it a try, 140 characters at a time.