Nov 152010

In a many ways, Paul Howes piece – or whinge – is accurate.

Skipping past the poor, hard-done-by bleat by someone clearly not familiar with the ways & wiles of new media, it’s patently evident that so-called social media tools – Twitter, Facebook et al – have made attacking one’s anti-thesis, be it ideological, personal or professional so much easier than pre-digital times. Consider the halcyon days of newspapers, when the dead tree and ink version of today’s Twitter required one to sit down, take pen in hand and use more dead tree to address an issue which either confronted or affronted. It was called, and still is in some quarters, ‘Letters to the Editor’, or as I’ll call it LttE. These days, LttE have been replaced to a major degree by the comment box at the end of columnist’s opinion pieces or journalist blogs sponsored by the various media outlet owners. I’ll come back to those avenues shortly, but for now, let’s look at the LttE. Back in the day, LttE required thought and a sense of literary composition. There was no possible way LttE would make it into print if there was a sniff of libel, personal attack or logical fallacy involved in whatever comment one chose to make on whatever issue. LttE had to be concise, pointed, well structured and rational, not to mention polite & non-libellous.
Now, let’s look at the modern age equivalent of the LttE. The comment box. Now, you’ll have noticed, reader, that in the mainstream media outlets, loosely labelled as ‘newspapers’, editorials issue without comment boxes attached. Editors either don’t expect reader contribution to their utterances, or don’t tolerate them. Frankly, I see it as more the latter than the former, but that’s just me. Comment boxes appear in the main attached to the media owner sponsored, journalist employee authored blog, and privately submitted op-eds, usually from commentators acceptable to the media outlet owners. For example, News Ltd much prefer that op-eds come from the hallowed halls of the Centre for Independent Studies. A misnomer if there ever was one. So, why is this the way of the world these days? I suggest that’s due to the way media owners want it to be. Let’s be fair though, and say that in the bad old days, you could write a LttE, a well considered and polite piece, and never see it make the print run. In the current times, you’re much more likely to see your less well considered utterance make it into the visible ether, because comment boxes need filling to be worth their while, and to attract those the outlet wishes to attract, as Tim Dunlop alludes to in his contribution to this issue of pertinence between the two medias, new and old.
So, my take on the divide between new & old medias? Yes, social media platforms have definitely lowered the standards of engagement between people wishing to engage on matters of import. It’s so much easier now for the ideologues & demogogues to pontificate, nit-pick and yes, troll the ether. Reasoned and rational discussion, and debate is still possible, but only in purpose-designed places within the ether where rules of engagement apply. Online Opinion is one such, where those suitably armed with the intellectual where-with-all and ability to engage can do so to relatively high and satisfying levels. That level of engagement simply cannot happen in environments like Twitter or even in online media comment boxes. The conversations are too disjointed and in the case of Twitter, extremely limited in scope by the 140 character text limit. For any intelligent, reasoned discussion on any subject, as the Romans teach us down through history, a Forum must be provided. Without a dedicated place and space, clear & concise rules of engagement – expectations in management parlance – trolls will abound. Twitter is replete with the snarky, snide one-line practitioners who provide categorical evidence of the lack of desire to engage, tending only to pretend to shut down reasoned discussion which doesn’t match their own low standards. It’s not about Labor-v-Liberal, left-v-right or any of the other mindless rationales for the all too evident tit-for-tat which goes on in the new media. It’s about those interested in using the new media to the best possible ends to provide that public space for debate over matters which concern us all. Hence, Twitter is not about discussion, but one-line commentary of other one-line commentary. No substance or content is possible in a 140 character environment.
So, to Paul Howe, and indeed anyone who complains about the inability of new media to foster reasoned debate, I simply say this. Pick your mark. Use proper discussion forums. Don’t anticipate having your opinion aired in the mainstream media if that opinion conflicts with the media owner’s ideology. Come to recognise the limitations of Twitter & the like, as well as the extremely narrow-minded demographic you’re going to encounter. You’re going to find trolls because that’s what the new media encourages, not by purpose or design, but by default of those using it. It’s not the fault of new media, it’s down to the lack of willingness to properly engage on the part of its users.

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