A fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times over the past weekend highlighted the challenge of living in a society that is increasingly ‘always on’. The idea of constant availability is appealing to some, and nauseating to others. Universally, however, the phenomenon continues to succumb to the law of unintended consequences.
In the article, the Public Editor (an ombudsman of sorts for the Times) explores the increasing availability and accessibility of the reporting staff, through the video newscasting of the morning story meeting as well as through social media such as Twitter and Facebook. The underlying guideline is that staff are constantly seen as a representative of the Times. The cautionary tale, however, is that these vehicles don’t provide much in the way of mediation between thought and action. It’s easy to screw up, and there is minimal opportunity for the editing process or time for reflection between thought, action and interpretation by the broader public. In other words, you’re speaking and writing without a safety net.
In reality, this flies in the face of how traditional news media like newspapers are supposed to work. Editors exist for a reason, and they serve an important function: make sure the story is interesting, make sure the reporting is accurate and make sure that the writing is grammatically correct and fully thought through. The immediacy of social media takes all of this away. Erstwhile intelligent and seasoned journalists all of a sudden have no greater level of depth or backing than the opinionated blogger sounding off in their basement. Rather than making the news media more relevant, immediate and accessible, there is a far greater risk that journalists – and media institutions – become indistinguishable from the rest of the blogosphere in all its noisy, chaotic and unedited glory.
One of my favourite quotes for a very long time has been one by Victor Frankl, from his book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning.’ The poignant assertion that “…freedom is the gap between stimulous and response…” fundamentally reinforces the unique gift that makes us human. We alone among the animals roaming the planet have the ability to stop, reflect and choose how we act, rather than simply reacting. What this article highlights is that social media runs the very significant risk of helping us to surrender that freedom. We need to think long and hard about whether it’s a freedom that we’re prepared to give up.