A COUPLE of weeks ago I was invited to give a short talk to an auditorium full of local high school students. We were discussing how and where people get their news.
At one point I was talking to them about the growing influence of the Facebook News Feed algorithm in determing what news you see — or more accurately, the news you do not see.
I explained how the news media have had to cope with A) the societal move towards people passively getting their news mostly from isolated articles on their News Feed, as opposed to more proactively surfing news sites; and B) how recent changes in the Facebook algorithm have effectively pulled the rug out from under the news organizations that had been rendered largely dependent on it in order to reach an audience.
I asked them to raise their hands if they got any of their news from the Facebook News Feed.
Not a single student raised their hand. Not one.
I regarded this as a happy discovery.
Now, I’m not completely naïve. I realize that other forms of social media have simply replaced Facebook for those under age 25-30 or so. Snapchat is the go-to platform for post-Millennials.
The revelation that these students were almost completely oblivious to anything happening on Facebook was still a welcome one, especially given the timing of the talk – the morning after the most contentious election since – well, since the last one.
It’s become an old adage that no one’s mind is ever changed from an argument on Facebook, and this election season was yet more proof of that.
What strikes me most about the nature of Facebook discourse these days is not just its overriding meanness and the quickly escalating nature of any disagreement there – the platform being expressly designed to get people addicted to emotional reactions and to suppress critical thinking.
The thing that gets me these days, and which as prompted me to spend more and more time off of it, isn’t so much the constant discord – which is an old story – but rather the constant sameness.
Every day it’s the same people posting the same outrage about the same topics. Every day it’s the same circular arguments that begin with minutiae and end with over-the-top personal insults.
Every day it’s the same misinformation that, like bad money, drives out the solid information. Every day the uniformity of opinion seems a little more uniform.
It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that Facebook’s stock price is cratering. The product now seems barely worth the price you pay for it, which is precisely nothing.
And more to the point, its audience is getting more grey by the day. Almost all of the worst behavior I see on Facebook is by middle-aged or elderly folks who really should know better.
Nonetheless, until more people than just high school students ditch Facebook, we in the news business are still stuck with making lemonade out of the lemons there.
A particularly insidious effect has been on finding an audience truly interested in consuming local news.
If people would take ten percent of the energy they spend on posting and commenting about the latest tweet from Donald Trump, and spend it on trying to influence local issues and politics instead, they might not be so miserable all the time.
There is a feeling of empowerment that comes from being more engaged in your local community, as opposed to the general sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that comes from obsessively focusing on the goings-on in Washingon and various far-flung places.
By focusing so much beyond your local borders, you are basically guaranteeing that you will only see the negative news from those other places. The Associated Press, for example, is rarely going to pick up a story from a member organization that is without controversy or without a hard news peg that will get a national audience’s attention.
If you want to learn more about other places, go directly to their local media’s webpages and spend some time there to get a more full picture.
Conversely, if you want to have more of a personal impact on the world around you, start with the world that is literally around you, here in Savannah where you live.
Consume local news. Get involved in local events and issues.
Go to meetings. Join boards.
Get the hell off Facebook – or if you stay on, focus more on local pages, groups, and issues.
This is a great time of year to make this move: Post-election, but before the full swing of the holidays. Think of it as early-adopting a New Years Resolution.
This Thanksgiving, the truly smart folks among us will give that day over to fellowship rather than political arguments around the dinner table.
Even pundit Bill Maher – who like myself is known as a bit of a cynic when it comes to political observations – gets it.
In a recent “New Rule” segment, he broke his own stereotype by urging people “Let’s stop talking politics to each other... we never used to fight about politics 24/7... we used to have no idea how much we hated each other – and it worked!”
On the topic of the social media platform that apparently not one high school student uses, Maher says, “Facebook used to be a place to humblebrag and show cat videos. Now it’s a cauldron of political hatred. It was a platform to gain friends. Now it’s more about rooting them out.”
Though Maher has been a million times more successful than I have, when two crusty guys like us who have made careers with cynical political observations are urging folks to take a break, it might be worth a listen.