The Perils of Social Media

Note: Since my relationship with Paul has been strained after a week where his Philadelphia Phillies blatantly stole free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee from my New York Yankees, I’m unsure that I can continue working on this blog with him. With that, along with the fact that we received a lengthy rebuttal to Paul’s post on social media earlier this week, it was decided that my post would be replaced with this one from our first guest blogger. Right now, I’m happy to give up my space to anyone who disagrees with Paul.

In the meantime I’m going to take the rest of the week off in order to reflect on the good times and place careful thought about the future of Paul and Shea. I’m glad to introduce Phil Broder, director of education at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, as our first-ever guest blogger on IBD. —Shea

Here’s what I’m not:

  • Antisocial
  • Antitechnology
  • A Luddite
  • Incommunicado
  • A curmudgeon.

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Well, to be fair, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. I find a measure of joy in needling Paul and Shea, in rooting for the underdog, in taking the uphill side of an argument. I’m not in the social media resister camp (and I heartily dislike Paul’s division of social media into two camps—adopters and resisters; for an example of the idiocy of splitting any issue into just two camps, I need only point to Congress), but neither am I the first to jump with both feet into something new (case in point: today news outlets are reporting that stylish UGG footwear can cause knee, hip, and back problems. My lack of personal style saved me again). “How like fish we are,” said Aldo Leopold, “ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time. And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook.”

I’m not prepared yet to bite into that hook. Social media is a tool, and like most tools, if properly used, it can build great things. But put a hammer into the hands of a toddler, and you’ll be dealing with smashed fingers, broken glass, holes in walls, and bedlam. Too many social media users are hammer-swinging toddlers (and I just had the most disturbing image of Shea in an argyle diaper). So let me start with what I find wrong with social media.

First, I strongly believe that we need to be present where we are. Most electronic devices tend to pull our attention from our surroundings. Who hasn’t been leading a program when someone’s phone rang? Ever watched someone miss a sunset because they were looking at a 4” screen? Does checking-in on Foursquare really enhance a visit to the Grand Canyon? Edward Abbey proposed banning even maps from wilderness areas. Wonder what Cactus Ed would say about an iPhone with built-in GPS, a Peterson’s field guide app, ratings of campgrounds, Google Earth, and a Groupon for a discount at the nearest Campmor shop? If we truly want to end nature deficit disorder, we need to stop contributing to it with all the social media distractions.

Too many people use social media as a substitute for real conversation. Posting something on your Facebook page isn’t the same as telling me about it. Maybe it’s easier for you, but what message should I get when family members relay important news via Facebook? My takeaway is that I’m not important enough for my sister to pick up a phone. In interpretation we talk about starting a dialogue with visitors, but Facebook users mostly seem to be monologue-ists. If you expect me to converse with you, don’t begin the conversation with a Facebook post.

Likewise, if you want to start an intelligent conversation, don’t use Twitter. At a mere 271 words, the Gettysburg Address is a classic example of brevity. Still, it’s too long to be Tweeted. Here’s how the writers of “The Daily Show” rewrote it for our modern era:

(And if you haven’t discovered http://historicaltweets.com, you’re missing some of the best revisionist history out there.) I’m concerned that any idea that can’t be boiled down to 140 characters will be ignored. Sociologists will tell you that the telephone effectively ended the age of letter writing, and now texting is ending the age of the phone call. Is Tweeting going to end the well-thought-out and supported argument? My greatest objection to Sarah Palin isn’t her politics, it’s that she seems to be trying to appeal mainly to people who can’t digest anything longer than 140 characters. Twitter is the lowest common denominator of communication.

Does anyone else find something appalling about the use of “friend” as a verb? I have many close friends, relationships that I’ve spent years cultivating, and they’re precious to me beyond value. Calling someone a “friend” just because you’ve clicked on them demeans and devalues the word. If you’ve got a Friends group at your park, zoo, or museum, would you rather have one friend who does volunteer work and makes an annual donation, or 100 “friends” who appear as tiny pictures on your Facebook page? And as far as getting in touch with old high school classmates, look, two decades ago they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, and catching up with them through social media is just an exercise in phoniness.

Let’s consider the message you’re sending out through social media. Is it important? Does it have value? In what way does it improve the world? Let’s face it, just because some people can talk doesn’t mean they should. Social media is a huge outlet for a lot of people who just don’t have much to say, but haven’t learned to keep their mouth closed. Nobody wants to know the intimate details of your daily life, what you’re wearing, what you ate, or that you’re sitting down to watch “Jersey Shore.” Really, how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere generating electricity to run the computers of vapid fools who want the whole world to know that they think we should all stop picking on Britney Spears? (As an aside, the backlash to mindless tweeting has begun. Recently, an AIDS charity enlisted stars like Ryan Seacrest, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian, who promised to go “dead” on Twitter and Facebook until people donated $1million to the charity. A group of sensible people saw an opportunity, and encouraged people to donate to other AIDS charities. Their strategy worked. The charity couldn’t raise the million dollars, and world went without Gaga and Kardashian for a few days, until finally they gave up and reneged on the deal.)

Several social media sites seem bent on turning everything into a popularity contest. I like making my own decisions, not running with the herd. It matters to me that the news I read is accurate, and it scares me that it can be so easily manipulated on Digg and Reddit by the opinions of the masses. If your main concern is how many Facebook friends you have, or getting Pinged everywhere you go, then I’d just rather not know you.

Now, having said all that, let’s look at the positive uses of social media. MySpace has been a boon to small-time musicians for reaching out to their fans. I’ll never again have to pay $15 for a CD only to find that there’s one good song and 11 pieces of crap. Facebook is useful for people with a shared interest who may not actually know each other; I use it to communicate with other dog park users so that I’ll know when my Lab’s posse will be there, instead of just crossing my fingers and driving nine miles to find out.

Can social media work for interpretation? In some cases, yes. I know a musician who spent a summer in New York City on her “Where In The Truck Is Chloe?” tour. Every day she’d pile her guitar and amp into a pickup truck, tweet to all her fans where she’d be and when, then show up there, play a few songs, and leave when the cops showed up. What a great way to generate buzz! I’m stealing the idea; our turtle mascot will tweet the location of his next appearance, show up at some local beach or boardwalk or restaurant, slap hands with a bunch of kids while another naturalist shows off some real turtles, and then off we go. Social media presents a means for getting the word out about a program without having to wait for the next quarterly newsletter. Wonder what would happen if I tweeted “going kayaking at 5pm. Anybody wanna come with?” Or how about “dolphin stranded @ the point. Need helpers 4 rescue ASAP!”

Even Mark Zuckerberg will admit that Facebook was created as a means to help people connect. Instead, it’s become millions of billboards, with most of us no more than commuters trying to figure out what to pay attention to without having an accident. If you’re using social media to just blindly throw information into the cybersphere, hoping that it will hit someone who finds it useful, you’re mostly just contributing to the white noise that disconnects too many people from the natural world. Remember Tilden’s second principle: “Information is not interpretation.” But If you’ve given it thought, and come up with a plan for using social media to create dialogue, if you’re tweeting to provoke (there’s that Tilden guy again!), social media has plenty of potential.

Am I a curmudgeon? Quite probably. But he who knows enough is enough will always have enough. And when I’m confronted by someone blathering on about the tweet that they copied to their Facebook page to share with their 1,156 “friends,” when I hear people whose main goal is to attract fans to their blog, when I’m forced to endure perversions of language brought on by someone who only knows how to communicate using two thumbs on a tiny keyboard, well, I’ve had enough.

The “So What?” of Social Media

When it comes to social media, there are basically two camps: the adopters and the resisters. The adopters jump into some or all of the social media outlets with both feet, tweeting, poking, tagging, posting, and doing all those other social media things that 10 years ago would have had entirely different meanings (I still giggle when someone tells me they’re “Googling”).

Meanwhile, the social media resisters spend their time sending the social media adopters snarky images like this:

This particular image, a Venn diagram available as a T-shirt from Despair, Inc., was sent to us by social media resister Phil Broder. And of course, we immediately posted it on our Facebook page.

I am firmly in the social media adopter camp, not just personally but for organizations as well. It has the ability to benefit your site (physical or virtual) in two distinct ways: cultivation of a core community and exposure to a vast, anonymous audience.

We use the IBD Facebook page partly to help build community and partly as a repository for JibJab videos. We don’t have as many followers as, say, Starbucks (we’re about 18.7 million fans shy), but Facebook has become a place where IBD readers share photos, links, and jokes about Shea’s wardrobe. It’s another venue to carry on the conversation, and that’s why we do this in the first place. (Note: As I was writing this, I became aware that IBD should be on Twitter, if for no other reason than to know what it is and how it works. So we started a Twitter account last week.)

We’ve both mentioned in the past that we’re obsessed with numbers, specifically the number of daily hits that we get on this blog. We’re aware that we probably have about 25 actual readers and that the rest of our hits come from Russian teenagers who accidentally stumble on our site looking for tips on stylish suspenders. While that core community of 25 readers (okay, 23 readers, plus our wives) is essential, there’s a certain thrill to seeing a post go even moderately viral.

We’ve enjoyed several occasions when social media unexpectedly drove lots of traffic to IBD.

August 2, 2010: At the time, “Ill Monday” was our heaviest day of traffic ever. On that day, an IBD post about a T-shirt that says “Ill” in the Phillies font got posted to the Facebook page of the company that makes the shirt, Philavania, driving a small fraction of their more than 17,000 fans to our page.

October 30, 2010: We set a new high on “Blue Saturday,” when a post about the color blue got Tweeted by a site called COLOURlovers to its 430,000 followers. The post got retweeted a handful of times and social media landed a bunch of people who had likely never before heard of us on our site.

December 5, 2010: This is the most random one of all. If you’re on Facebook, you surely noticed earlier this month that people changed their profile photos to cartoon characters to raise awareness about child abuse. I don’t know whether the campaign met its goals, but on “Tassie Sunday,” it did succeed in driving a record number of hits to our site, nearly all of them people doing Google image searches for the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil character and landing on an IBD post about the actual animal from back in May.

December 11, 2010: Just two days ago, COLOURlovers tweeted another of our posts, Yellow Makes Babies Cry, and we had just installed that green Twitter button that you see at the top of each post, allowing readers to easily share the post with their Twitter followers. The post got retweeted 44 times (as of this writing) and we had a new record.

This begs the Freeman Tilden question: So what? What’s the advantage of having a bunch of random people looking for cartoons stumble across our website, surely only for a few moments? It’s not as though Phillies fans who want to read about a trendy T-shirt are suddenly going to buy up the remaining stock of the book.

The nature of social media is that 99.9 percent of the people who accidentally stumble across this or any other site leave without a second thought. We tend to incorporate a lot of nonsense about baseball and our personal lives into posts about interpretation and design, so a lot of our traffic is from people who are not in either field, but that remaining fraction of a percent may stay to become part of the conversation, or at least lurk in the background like teenage Shea at a high school dance.

It costs nothing except time to maintain a social media presence, and the benefits can be exponential. Suppose your interpretive site deals with a specific historical event. A regularly updated blog, Facebook page, or Twitter feed about that event may cultivate a core readership—which to me is where the real value is—but the occasional post that unexpectedly goes viral will expose your interpretive site to a vast audience of new readers and potential visitors.

And for those readers (or fans or followers or whatever) who become part of your core audience, social media creates a distinct and important sense of community. For instance, I’ve been told that the conversations that take place on the National Association for Interpretation’s Facebook page help bridge the gap from one NAI Workshop to the next.

I’ve also been told that I am an awesome dancer, which I am not. I’m pretty sure that has something to do with JibJab videos. And I’ve been told that I have a lumpy head. I thought this had something to do with photos of me getting my head shaved at the NAI National Workshop last month, but it turns out it was just people being mean.

If your site does not have a social media presence, I’d encourage you to get one. The benefits are hard to quantify, but they are real.