Sunday, February 14, 2016

Facebooking Ourselves to Death

Facebook is Neil Postman's worst media nightmare.  He argued in his classic 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death that Americans are dumbing down TV news to the point where it's harmful to individuals and to society. 

Postman had problems with TV news jumping from story to story with no context: Viewers get a minute on a plane crash, eight seconds on oil prices, a quick piece of political gossip ... and then a bulldog on a skateboard wraps it all up.

Tillman, busy warming hearts.  First disclaimer: I owned an English bulldog named Big Pete, and I loved him dearly. No one is anti skateboarding bulldogs. 

The result of a TV newscast is a disoriented viewer who heard a series of disconnected facts; but, didn't necessarily come away with any actual meaning.  

Explaining oil prices is hard. Bulldogs on skateboards are hilarious. 

So entertainment superceeds everything else because we can't (or don't want to) digest complex or dry information.  

Here's Postman's real point: There's nothing wrong with entertainment. The problem is when everything we do becomes centered around, or grounded in, entertainment.  

The big cable companies are bad enough. Then there's Facebook.  

Facebook is television news on steroids, in terms of its potential to disorient while pretending to educate.  

Facebook is typically an informational free for all.  Maybe your news feed is a bit more organized and logical.  But here's my newsfeed right now, in a 10 second scan:
  • A friend living in LA saw the evil sensei from Karate Kid at the grocery store
  • A few cute pics of people with their children
  • A joke
  • A political news story
  • Underwater pics of dogs diving into a swimming pool after tennis balls
  • A local business hired a new pet groomer
  • A pic of the beautiful, cold snowy morning we are experiencing
  • A quote from Mark Twain
  • This Valentine's Day card meme ... 

  • A video of Tiger Woods
  • More political stories
  • Someone's dinner from last night
  • More jokes and memes
  • And, one of those fake stories / advertisements designed to get you to click, about someone suspecting a ghost in the attic.  But what they really found will shock you! 

Disclaimer two: There's nothing wrong with any of this!  Especially the ghost in the attic link ... I wonder what's up there ... 

There's a lot of beauty here: My Facebook feed also contains news of a friend's first child; and, my youngest brother's engagement. 

But, if we consume several hours of this utter randomness a week - and here's the important part - we do not turn to any substantive news source for any other media engagement ... well, that's where we become screwed. 

The Daily Show, WMMS on the way into work, and scrolling through our news feed on our phones a few times a day is just not enough to feed our brains.

What I suggest for students

I suggest this for everybody, actually: Read the paper. 

I disagree with my mom on most key issues, but she can usually take me to school when it comes to a presentation of facts. She's read two papers every day for years, and she knows what's going on.  

Facebook conveys a rainbow of interesting and entertaining information; but, newspapers are designed to pass on meaning through a structured, repetitive delivery of analysis-based content. 


A newspaper is logically structured. The sections build out from each other like concentric circles: Local, to state, to national news.  Newspapers always first tell us what's going on, then they offer analysis and opinion on what we just read a section later. 

The sections are the same every day so a story can build. And readers can sharpen analysis skills by following the storyline as it plays out over time, and within a clear context. 

I am a strong advocate of both print and digital news media consumption in the classroom; and I'd suggest parents wanting to challenge their kids at home insist they read actual papers or news sites - versus news subscriptions and feeds running through Facebook.

Ideally a student would work with both print and digital news sources, since a digital site is quite a different experience from a newspaper. 

Is Facebook just plain evil?

I mean, there was that time (that we know of) that Facebook experimented on us, attempting to manipulate user emotions through the content that was selectively posted.

The other thing about Facebook is people seem happier when they are not on it.  I hear all the time from people who get off it, and describe the absence as if a spell were being broken. 

I'm not sure how healthy the social media saturation our kids undergo can possibly be for many insecure, developing teenagers, either. 

Disclaimer three: I'm a Facebook frequent user, and a digital marketer in charge of social media for a few different companies. But ...  something just doesn't feel right to me about this social platform. In short, I think Facebook has the potential to cast a shadow across the spirit.  

"When I was a kid, we didn't have any Facebooks, and we liked it!" 

My nutshell advice to educators teaching a unit or class on social media and current events would be to simply create clear distinctions.  Facebook is not news. It has sprinklings of news in it, but nothing replaces the newspaper if you want to understand what's happening in our world.