A clear and present danger exists to the advances brought on in recent years through the development of social media. The coarsening conversation apparent throughout the online media environment threatens to stall or even reverse important recent advances.
The ability of those outside of traditional media to speak directly to the public while enabling a constructive dialogue and audience conversation revolutionizes communications. Companies and individuals now have the ability to become publishers and broadcasters with very little skill or investment. In turn, readers, viewers, and listeners can interact with the content creators and even each other.
Ultimately, these advances provide an opportunity for more valuable content to be available online. Previously overlooked niches now receive abundant coverage from amateur media. Small and medium-sized businesses have a new outlet for reaching potential customers. Massive corporations can humanize themselves through effective social media outreach. Even old-fashioned media outlets now face viable competition in some categories from these amateur upstarts.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that social media has been achieving increased acceptance in corporate executive suites and with media editors and producers. This trend will abate, however, if the coarsening conversation continues to dominate large swaths of the online communications arena.
Comments on blogs and other media sites have always been opinionated. However, the level of personal invective seems to be on the rise. Recent articles online about the tragic death of former White House spokesman Tony Snow and the illnesses of Sen. Ted Kennedy and Robert Novak have brought out a bevy of online commenters who have reveled in the news. One anonymous blogger at DailyKos even manipulated and fabricated facts to allege that GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin’s newborn son was not her own, leading to countless blog posts and comments that can only be described as despicable.
The political universe does not stand alone in its coarseness, however. Check out sports blogs, for instance, and you will find rampant obscenities and a rash of juvenile blog posts and comments.
The world of technology itself produces more than its fair share of coarse conversation. The recent salvos between advocates of the DEMO and TechCrunch conferences did little to advance constructive dialogue, opting instead for the apparently preferred approach of finger-pointing and vitriolic rhetoric.
At this point, I would advise most major media outlets and larger companies that do anything even remotely controversial to forego comments entirely — either initially or at the first sign of trouble. At a minimum, it would be wise to restrict anonymous comments. Regardless of what my fellow social media evangelists may say, trash-talking, personal invective, obscenities, and rude behavior in comments do indeed reflect upon the brand or publication. Comments may still fill a role for smaller, niche publications, but they appear doomed to failure on a larger scale.
For years now, the stereotype of bloggers has been crazy young people living in their mom’s dark basement posting in their pajamas. That’s unfortunate as there are countless quality bloggers and social media creators producing useful material. But the increasingly rancorous nature of social media threatens to reinforce the stereotype and scare away newcomers — both in terms of participants and audience.
Those who decry traditional media as stiff and rigid and who praise social media as more flexible and responsive may be correct. Yet so long as social media participants continue to behave more like spoiled kids than polished communicators, traditional media will retain an edge with the broader public. The line between “authenticity” and coarseness can be quite fine indeed.
It is vital to remember that there’s a clear difference between “amateur” and “amateurish.” Finding high-quality content from new media sources while discarding the noise and vitriol has become increasingly difficult. Andrew Keen suggests this “Cult of the Amateur” threatens our society and economy. That’s not likely, as it will likely sink social media before it can accomplish that great feat.