Political posts in social media are a sure fire way to lose friends and alienate others. That's probably why most of us avoid talking about politics on Twitter and Facebook.
When I suggested this to one of my friends who was posting some radical opinions about a political candidate, his response was "well, if they unfriend me because of my political posts, they’re probably not really my friends."
My friend is not alone. Some people just don’t care who they anger and would rather use social media as the new soapbox in the Internet town square.
While this might be true, it doesn’t account for the millions of others who follow the "no political posts" norm of civilized social media discourse, or those who manage to share their thoughts in a way that is respectful to those who disagree.
According to findings released this week by the Pew Research Internet Project, we might have a better idea about why people avoid engaging in political debates.
Pew surveyed 1,801 adults about Edward Snowden's 2013 exposure of the NSA surveillance program. According to documents leaked by Snowden, the government has been recording phone calls and collecting email of American citizens without our consent.
The NSA program was divisive and controversial. And at the time of their study, Pew researchers also found that the country was divided on the issue (49% thought the program served the public interest; 44% did not).
You can access the Pew study at http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/.
It turns out, according to the Pew study, that people were more likely to avoid politically-charged conversations on social media than they were in face-to-face settings. If people are going to engage in debate, and voice their opinions, it seems they prefer to do it in-person and not with a tweet.
The Pew study looked at something we refer to in public opinion research as the "Spiral of Silence."
The Spiral (made famous by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann) is simple. As one opinion is perceived to be the majority, and therefore dominant opinion, other people who think their opinion is in the minority will be less likely to speak out for fear they will be shunned.
As the dominant position gains strength, the minority voice gets weaker and weaker, falling further down the spiral. This explanation has been used to explain why strong minority voices are sometimes perceived to represent the majority.
This was supposed to change with social media. Twitter and Facebook should have been the level playing field for the disenfranchised, the minority voices. Social media was supposed to offer a platform where those with little or no power could be heard.
No more spiral, right?
According to the Pew study, social media was no more effective than in-person discussions for creating a comfortable space to share alternative opinions, at least when it came to discussing Snowden.
And just like our face-to-face debates, we may be more willing to share our views on social media if we think our friends and others agree with us. The Pew researchers found that, at work, people were about three times more likely to join a discussion about the Snowden case if they felt their coworkers shared their opinion.
People are still social creatures, even in the virtual world. Most people adhere to the same rules of polite communication on social media as they do in face-to-face interactions.
However, the people out with friends and family at a party, spouting opinions and making snarky remarks about a recent controversy, will likely do the same online.
Just as we make an excuse to avoid those people in public (and to get out of earshot at the party), we can hide them, defriend them, or stop following their feed in social media.
We focus so much attention on how social media has changed the way we interact with each other. The Pew study shines a light on the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
~ A version of this column appeared in the Sunday, August 31, 2014 edition of The Vindicator newspaper
It’s difficult for me to imagine life without the Internet and social media. While it’s not the same as looking someone in the eye and having a conversation, in a broader way, I feel more connected to people from all over the world.
After all, we live in a global village.
At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard or used that phrase “global village.” You may have heard it used in reference to the Internet.
The first email you sent must have been exciting. You didn’t have to wait days for someone to get a letter in the mail. And more importantly, the response was usually a lot quicker.
More recently, you may hear “global village” used at the launch of a new social-media app, or in reference to being able to have real-time video chats with people in different countries.
What might surprise you, however, is that the person who is credited with coining “global village” did so in the 1960s — decades before the Internet and social media.
How could he have possibly known about a global village in the 1960s?
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher who became a bit of a social icon in the mid-20th century (he had a cameo in the movie “Annie Hall”), predicted this brave new world of email, websites and social media long before the first computers were linked.
“Global village” was a way to explain the extensions we have to other people all over the world through various channels and technologies. In 1962, he said: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.”
OK, I know this sounds like something some old, boring, stodgy professor-type would say. But underneath all of this is a prediction. In a sense, he predicted the Internet and, more specifically, social media.
The thought was that all the different technologies and mediums we use to connect with others and learn about the world would eventually exist in one place. He saw the telephone, television, radio, books, newspapers, and primitive versions of the computer as the heart of the global village.
McLuhan knew what was coming next. We’re used to hearing predictions of doom and gloom (see Nostradamus), but McLuhan’s predictions were (and are), for the most part, hopeful and exciting.
For example, he once said, “The next medium ... will transform television into an art form.”
Now think about the way television has evolved in the past five years. Think of the volumes of videos we now access on Facebook, Twitter, Vine and other social-media apps that serve entertain and educate us.
Think of binge-watching and streaming TV shows that features rich characters and complex stories. This is yet another of his predictions in the process of being realized through the creation of new technologies.
Of course, we’re still witnessing McLuhan’s predictions. And although he died in 1980, I wish he were here to tell us what was next.
Maybe he has.
If you’re brave enough and have the time to wade through his dense yet artful prose — it took me five weeks to read McLuhan’s “Understanding Media” — maybe you’ll find the next great prediction. And maybe that prediction will lead you to create the next great invention, and create stronger connections for the global village.
~ A version of this post appeared in the Sunday, August 24, 2014 "Connected" section of The Vindicator.
Ed Ball recently started an online petition to get Weird Al Yankovic to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl.
As Ball sees it, Yankovic — a gifted musician known for his family-friendly parodies and polkas — is the perfect mix of music, art and theatrics needed for the biggest halftime show on Earth.
Yankovic’s 14th album “Mandatory Fun” was released in July and reached the top spot on the Billboard 200 Music Chart the following week.
Ball is not alone in his desire to see Yankovic featured during the halftime show. Located on Change.org, Ball has gathered more than 123,000 signatures for his petition. But the momentum to bring Al to the more than 110 million people who watch the NFL championship really started with social media.
Change.org was created to allow anyone to easily create, distribute and promote petitions, and gather petition signatures. The petition’s power, however, resides in its social-media function. The more a petition is shared on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, the better chance it has of gaining signatures and, more importantly, recognition from policy-makers (or, in this case, an NFL exec).
Create Your Own Petition
If you want to right a societal wrong, no matter how serious or silly, creating an online petition is a good place to start. Change.org makes creating an online petition pretty simple.
1. Whom Are You Petitioning? You need to identify the person or group who can enact the change you want. In Ball’s case, the Weird Al petition is targeted at Tracy Perlman, NFL vice president of entertainment and marketing, who oversees the planning and promotion of the halftime show.
2. What Do You Want to Change? Ball’s plea is simple: Have Weird Al Yankovic headline the Super Bowl XLIX Halftime Show. He offers a good rationale, citing Yankovic’s history and success, while praising previous NFL halftime shows in an effort to curry favor with Perlman and NFL executives who will ultimately choose the lineup.
3. Include a Photo or Video. Change.org encourages petitioners to include a photo or video to help explain the issue.
While Ball did not include a video, he did post a photo of Weird Al, and because he is so well known, the inclusion of additional media is probably unnecessary. However, let’s say you wanted to petition leaders to clean up a local park. A video showing the park’s condition would almost certainly encourage more signatures.
4. Go to Social Media. The final step for any good Change.org petition is social-media promotion. Gathering signatures happens only when the petitioner goes to Facebook, Twitter, and the old standby, email, to share the petition with like-minded friends and fans. The hope is that enough people (and media outlets) see power (and a story) in the petition, and share the link with others.
Ball went to Facebook and Twitter to promote his petition, and the throngs of Al supporters joined in.
For my part, I was signature 122,477. I quickly went to Facebook and Twitter to proudly fly my nerd banner (I’ve been rocking to “Like a Surgeon” since I was 14).
Other fans and nerds like me went to Facebook and Twitter to link to Ball’s petition.
Our dream, of course, is to see Weird Al singing his famous parodies alongside musicians such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Pharrell at Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, 2015.
Interested in signing Ball’s petition for a Weird Al Yankovic Super Bowl halftime show? Click here to go to Ball's www.change.org petition. While you're there, check out the other petitions or maybe start one of your own.
~ A version of this post appeared in the Sunday, August 17, 2014 "Connected" section of The Vindicator.
Two years ago, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic skin disorder. Like any determined parent, I set out to find answers, the correct diagnosis and treatment options.
During a visit to the Cleveland Clinic, a well-respected pediatric dermatologist provided his assessment. He concluded our visit with this command: “Whatever you do, don’t search Google for pictures of this disorder. Those pictures are probably not the same thing your daughter has.”
That’s like putting a plate of cookies in front of a 5-year-old, telling her not to eat the cookies, and leaving the room.
I don’t think we were out of the hospital before I was searching the name of the skin disorder on my smartphone.
Of course, the pictures weren’t pretty, just as the doctor warned. But it immediately made me question the kind of life my daughter might have. Would we find treatment options? If no treatments existed, where would we find support? Do local or online support groups exist for this type of disorder?
The doctor was right. I shouldn’t have looked. But it made me think about how other doctors might discourage (or encourage) their patients to research medical conditions, find answers, and connect with local and online support networks.
Dr. Mike Sevilla, a physician based in Salem, is one of the first medical doctors to use social-media to connect with patients. He said the No. 1 tip he gives patients is to not use Google to start their searches.
“The top Google results usually scare people and usually have inaccurate information,” Dr. Sevilla said.
And if you’re looking for links to social support, skip Google. Social-support networks such as PatientsLikeMe.com or CureTogether.com are independent of hospitals and national organizations. When searching for “cancer support,” these sites don’t show up in the top Google search results.
So where should you start?
Dr. Sevilla suggests four groups of websites that he encourages his patients to use.
Of course, there are limits to finding information online and support through social-media groups. Nothing beats a visit to your physician. But when the next available appointment is weeks away and you need answers now — social media.
I was able to find online support groups for my daughter’s rare condition. As a parent, it was reassuring to know there were others out there who could offer support.
My daughter is fine, and in good health. But next time, I’ll be sure to follow the doctor’s orders and keep a safe distance from Google.
~ A version of this post appeared in the Sunday, August 10, 2014 "Connected" section of The Vindicator.
I love to drive. Whether on my own or with the family, it gives me time to think, listen to music, and chat with the wife and kids.
Aside from construction and the occasional aggressive driver, the only real challenge to driving is figuring out how to get from point A to point B.
Enter the GPS (global positioning system) and the myriad of new travel apps for our mobile devices.
Like most apps, some GPS apps are better than others. Earlier this year, one of my colleagues introduced me to Waze, one of the first map apps to employ a social media feature.
I immediately fell in love.
Yes, I know the thought of being “social” and “connected” with other drivers on the road is an abstract thought. We don’t text and drive. We don’t check Twitter feeds or update our Facebook status while at the wheel.
But let’s face it; we’re on the road together. We should enjoy the experience together.
Waze works like a GPS device, offering detailed maps and turn-by-turn directions. But Waze takes is a step further by connecting us to other drivers on the same route.
This social media feature garnered Waze a lot of praise, millions of users, and a Google acquisition (Google purchased Waze in 2013 for a reported $1.3 billion).
This week, I exchanged email with Julie Anne Mossler, Senior Director of Communications for Waze, about the success and future for the social GPS app.
AE: How do you explain the purpose of Waze to someone who has never used it before? What makes it different than a typical GPS device?
JM: Waze is one of the world’s largest networks of drivers who work together daily to outsmart traffic and save time and money. By looking at real-time input from users’ GPS and their proactive reporting, we’re able to consistently recommend the fastest routes around traffic, as well as low gas prices and more. A traditional navigation system only tells half the traffic story, displaying congestion and no context. We're about two-way communication to be your ultimate driving companion.
AE: You mention two-way communication. One of the Waze features I love is alerting people on the road behind me when I see a speed trap. I think of this as the equivalent of “flashing your lights” when passing a cop so as to alert oncoming traffic. Have you ever received any pushback from law enforcement about this feature?
JM: Actually most police appreciate the feature, since it seems to be human nature to slow down and drive more cautiously when it’s likely you’ll pass a cop. We even work with the NYPD to include their alerts within our app, like noting dangerous intersections.
AE: There are a lot more people on the road during the summer, and probably a few more police. Is there anything special that Waze programmers have to do to prepare for the onslaught of users?
JM: Our two biggest catalysts for usage are what we call “traffic events” – planned activities like marathons or major traffic disasters that close multiple lanes of traffic, and weather, which is often unpredictable and leaves little time for drivers to plan their route. We can’t plan for many of these incidents, but more users equal more data which equals a more accurate map, so we’re constantly trying to attract new users and increase our server load.
AE: I’m always seeing something new with the Waze app. Without divulging any trade secrets, what new services or features might one expect from Waze?
JM: Any new Waze features must enhance time spent in the car while promoting safe driving. Lately we've invested in social features, like the ability to text a drive to a friend so that you aren't distracted with calls asking where you are. You can expect more social features and fun promotions soon.
Waze is available for download on iOS, Android and Windows mobile devices.
~ A version of this story appeared in the Sunday, August 3, 2014 "Connected" section of The Vindicator.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is associate professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about social media and technology, sports and fans.