Last Thursday, Here and Now’s story on “Social Media Buzz” included a discussion of livestreaming and stormchasers. The story started on a positive note, discussing how posts on social media sometimes reach people with word of an impending storm more quickly than news updates and the National Weather Service. Yay! Social media helps people!
Then the perspective changed. Host Robin Young talked about how stormchasers sometimes continue to film a storm when they should be taking cover. She commented, “Social media drives people to do things they might not otherwise do.” Boo! Social media is the devil!
Sigh. No. Social media is not driving people to do anything. People do not say, “Oh, I have social media so I have to do this.” You can blame the love of attention, a desire for approval, and perhaps an adrenaline rush. The motivations in this case are similar to those that a daredevil or actor might have. Yet, as an example, I don’t recall anyone ever saying Evel Knievel was driven (pun intended) to jump a canyon because cars encouraged him to do things he might not otherwise do.
Social media may help stormchasers reach an audience in ways that bring them attention, approval, and an adrenaline rush, but social media itself isn’t doing anything. Unfortunately, stories that blame Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are quite common, despite their basis on causal fallacies. I wasn’t even looking, and I happened upon “Woman: My Facebook obsession caused divorce” from my local television station.
My colleague Kathy Fitch found a more developed example in an ESPN article that seems to blame Instagram for the suicide of a student at that University of Pennsylvania. Alongside an image of the student, the article explains, “The Instagram account of Madison Holleran seemed to show a successful and happy college freshman. But behind the scenes, the University of Pennsylvania track athlete was struggling with her mental health.”
As Fitch responded, “Suicide and depression thrived in the days before social media. Did it have a role in her distorted view of life? Yes, of course. Causal? No.” My response to the story was a bit more literary: A person wandering through the world. Everyone thinks everything is fine. Some even envy the person. Um, “Richard Cory,” anyone?
So what’s my point, beyond having a rant? If I can borrow Nick Carbone’s hashtag, media stories like these seem #worthassigning. They raise questions about cause and effect, the role of social media, and the ways we communicate. How would you use these readings in the classroom? Do you have an example reading that blames social media for what’s wrong with the world? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.