Where Social Media Tumbles into Civic Engagement

Wired Laundrette flickr photo by mikecogh shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I was recently re-reading an interesting article by Clive Thompson, in Wired magazine, entitled “The Social Medium is the Message,” (which has a different title online, for whatever reason) and some of what he writes about resonates with the connection between social media, storytelling and civic imagination that forms the core anchor of the Networked Narratives course.

Here are some bits from Thompson’s article that stuck with me, and then some of my own commentary afterwards.

“Over the next year, the mainstream culture will grapple, for real, with the civic and political effects of our lives online.” — Clive Thompson, Wired, “The Social Medium is the Message”

That’s a fact. Whether it will be a productive discussion remains to be seen. The opening days of this presidency are not holding out great hope, with talk of “alternative facts” and outright lies to the American public and media.

“The most effective disinformation usually begins with an actual fact then amplifies, distorts, or elides; ban the distortion and you risk looking like you are banning the nugget of truth, too.” — Clive Thompson

See above. Trump, as Thompson notes, smartly understands this piece of how disinformation can be used. I suspect media outlets will be under gun until they find a way to harness the power they do have to hold officials accountable for their actions, and their words, and their tweets. We’ve already seen that happening in some of the major news organizations.

“There are limits to what technological fixes can achieve in civic life. Though social networks amplify American partisanship and distrust of institutions, those problems have been rising for years.” – Clive Thompson

Which means it may not be technology, but us, the people, who need to find ways to make this new system work. We need to pressure social media to reduce our bubbles (don’t just share with me things I want to read) and we need to reach out to others. Obama’s quote of calling on someone, in person, to discuss differences of opinions? Yes on that.

“The old order was flawed and elitist and locked out too many voices; it produced seemingly consensus by preventing many from being heard. We’re still fumbling around for new mechanisms that can replace that order and improve upon it.” — Clive Thompson

It seems to me that the Networked Narratives is evolving at the right moment in time, and that while we are celebrating the notions of digital storytelling in a very connected age, we also have to acknowledge and grapple with the reality of darkness that comes with such a shift. This week, we saw some of that darkness emerge with Facebook being the platform for a murder, playing out for the world to see, and all of the ensuing questions that arise about responsibility and censorship and viral natures of digital platforms.

If we want ourselves, and our children and our students, to become engaged in civic life, then we need to find ways to harness the potential positive power of networks for the good of the world (even though what one person defines as “good” might be “bad” in the mind of someone else).

I’m curious to know what you think.

Peace (brimming through the wires),

  1. It always seems to come down to that basic idea – that it not the tools but the people behind them that shape new potential for transformative forms of communication.

    Yes, I too believe in the power of stories, not only to slander or sell, but also to help is see things differently.
    To build bridges and actualize connection, community and intentions.

    But who are the storytellers of our world? And how do we keep them vital and pure of heart? I wonder, and I work, and I pray too..,

    Thanks for everything you do Kevin. Your thoughts and connections have sewn so many important seeds. So many alchemical moments that matter.


    • I think the overall message has to be: we’re in this together. My story is part of your story is part of our story. We owe it to each other to find ways to be part of the larger narrative of our world (and yes, that sounds a bit esoteric and new age-y but it’s all I got right now)

  2. Yes, that is why I love PensatoScherzando’s namesake, Scheherazade.

    Sherazade ensured the the survival her community, and transformed vengeance into redemption, by simply telling a story each evening in order to survive. She brokered her people’s deliverance with those gentle transformations each night. Scheherazade captured the heart of the vengeful King with the power of her stories and she changed the world. Funny thing, he didn’t even know it.

    …So there can certainly be hidden power in stories, and yes, we are all in it together as you say. Even if that is not understood by everyone, we must keep spinning our yarns..

  3. Thanks for the article, and the link. I posted a new article on my blog, to share this with my own readers, and add my own spin. http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2017/04/social-media-and-civic-engagement.html

    In some way’s it’s a continuation of the “who’s here and who’s not” conversation started in the #clmooc chat last year.

    I don’t find many who spend time thinking about this, or who spend time mapping participation to better understand who’s engaged, and who would still need to be involved, if the problems we’re concerned about are to move a bit closer to a solution.

    • True, but you do, and that makes a difference. I think, for many, the social network is this field of invisibility, not often seen nor understood. Mapping, as you do, and as I do from time to time, is a way to make sense of it.

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