Using Online Media During Covid-19

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Staying home, modeling my homemade, no-sew mask. Bob Trube © 2020

Amid sheltering in place during Covid-19, I’ve had to think through my use of online media in this time, in both professional and personal life. I’m still in process, particularly as I observe the various controversies, rumors, information, and dire news reports coming from every country on the planet. I’m sobered by what our first responders and frontline healthcare personnel must face, by news of friends and friends of friends who are fighting infections, and the growing death tolls. In addition to newscasts, much of this information comes over online media. Like most of you, I’m trying to figure out how to walk the line between denial and obsession, of staying informed without being overwhelmed. Here are some thoughts in how I’m thinking about and dealing with this. I’m still figuring it out, and what I say may not fit your situation, so, for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts:

  1. I’m trying to take steps to limit how much I read online. It’s a real temptation for me. I love to learn about things, which probably accounts for the shelves and shelves and piles of books in my home. I’m learning to take times of the day to check the news, and other times where I put the phone in another room, particularly when I want to give uninterrupted time to work projects or reading. If I don’t, there is always another story, and in time, even though I’m pretty even keel, I get weighed down.
  2. When I read about things that heighten my anxiety, or news about friends getting infected, or facing other struggles, I stop and pray. Often, it is just a breath prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” I try to jot a note to express care. I use messaging or emails to check in with others who I care about. I often feel helpless, but I believe God can take the little I can offer and multiply it.
  3. Much of my online presence is about books and reading, and I will stick to that. I’ve been reading Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War right now. It is a wonderful account of how important books were to those in service during World War 2. We’re in a war, facing both dire prospects and extended time at home, books can inspire and divert us. So I’ll keep reading and reviewing and posting articles about books on my Facebook page, as well as “questions of the day,” quotes, and humor. To laugh, to share about books we’ve loved, and talk about books we might read next is an act of hope, and an affirmation of life.
  4. I sense that some of those I work with are already burning out on Zoom. It’s unavoidable for faculty and students I work with. But it is also tiring, because we “see” others, but have to work harder to connect. I’m learning to break these sessions up into smaller doses. I’m also wondering if sometimes, a phone call, or even an old-fashioned handwritten note or letter may be better. Zoom is a great tool, but I’m starting to rummage around and ask if there are other tools in the toolbox I should be using.
  5. I am not going to amplify the dire news, rumors, and controversy. Other than one instance of advocating around an issue that personally affected friends I care about, I try to keep it positive. I love to give shout-outs to our governor and state health director (a fellow Youngstowner and Youngstown State alumnus!) who are giving great leadership to our state. Otherwise, I try to post humor, encouraging stories like the technology developed locally to sterilize the critical N95 masks up to 20 times, and other things, like a video showing how you can make a no-sew mask, along with a selfie of me with one of those masks. There are news outlets and plenty of others bringing dire news, conflicting stories, and controversies. I’ll leave it to them. As for politics, I say the one referendum that counts is the first Tuesday of this November.

There is a scripture I was reminded of again today that shapes my approach:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8, NIV).

Nearly seven years ago when I launched this blog, I wrote, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world.” I think we need this now as much as ever. So I will keep writing about our common love of all things related to books. I will keep writing stories about Youngstown. And I will keep cherishing each day God gives for us to share on this media.

Stay safe dear friends.

Are You “Sharing” Truth or Falsehoods?

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Reporters with various forms of “fake news” from an 1894 illustration (cropped) by Frederick Burr Opper, Public Domain via Wikipedia

One of the more grievous things about social media is to see the number of posts and memes, many of a political nature, that, when fact-checked, are either half-truths or outright lies. The most unsettling are personal attacks on individuals, based on false information.

I am most disturbed when I see friends who I know as professing Christians engaged in this kind of activity. The apostle Paul in Ephesians calls us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). What is disturbing is that much of this activity evidences neither truth nor love.

Sometimes, it may be that we see something that either incites our outrage, or reinforces an existing belief, and it is so easy to click “share” or “retweet.” The thing is that often, that is exactly what the originators of this content want us to do, whether they are partisans in this country or propagandists from foreign countries seeking to sow discord in the American system.

I think that if all professing Christians determined to not share and retweet political posts, without checking their truthfulness before passing them along, it would not stop this practice, but it might make a difference. If they went a step further and let the person who shared the information with them that it was inaccurate, this might give others pause (and might not).

This does raise the question of how we assess the truthfulness of posts and tweets. The Huffington Post recently published an article on “How to Recognize a Fake News Story” that reflects my own practices. They suggested nine practices:

  1. Read past the headline.
  2. Check what news outlet it is published on. (Google the site’s name.) I would add, be aware of the bias of all news outlets, even mainstream media.
  3. Check the publish date and time (sometimes old events are represented as current).
  4. Who is the author? (Search their past articles to see if they are reputable or have a reputation for hoaxes)
  5. Look at what links and sources are used.
  6. Look for questionable quotes and images. (The article suggests tools you can use).
  7. Beware of confirmation bias. (Don’t just share something because it agrees with your point of view–it could be false.)
  8. Search if other news outlets are reporting it. (Especially those with a different bias).
  9. Think before you share.

I also use sites like FactCheck.org, or Politifact.com to check posts, quotes, and memes. Often I end up finding the actual meme or post and then a detailed citation of reputable sources confirming the post or showing it partially true or false. Some people have accused these sites of bias, but I have found them willing to take to task posts across the political spectrum, and to provide reputable sources to back up their findings.

What is most challenging to me however is that I do not want to be found disobedient to the word of God. And I believe that anyone who really loves God and God’s word does not want to be found disobedient, either. Consider some of these scriptures and their implications for what we say and write online:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16.

The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” Proverbs 12:22.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” 1 Corinthians 13:6

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Ephesians 4:25

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” 1 Peter 2:1

I spend a good deal of time online with this blog, and on different social media sites I curate. This is a challenging word that I consider:

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” Matthew 12:36 [All verses NIV]

I just added it up. I’ve written over 1.5 million words on this blog since I began it in 2013. I believe I will give account for every one. As well as my posts and comments on social media. All my emails. My words offline. Apart from grace, I know I’m in deep trouble. But even with grace, I’m sobered that my words, indeed my life, is an open book to God. I love God and I want to tell a story God loves.

If you love God, I think you do as well. We may not always agree, and I don’t think we need to mute our disagreements or our convictions about parties and issues. Can we agree to tell the truth to the best of our ability? Can we agree not to “gaslight” each other? Can we agree to believe the best of each other?

Jesus called his followers the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We may wonder whether what we do makes a difference. I would suggest that it does not take much salt to flavor something. Even a small light can pierce and dispel darkness. “Tipping points” happen when a number of small changes come together and have a cumulative effect. Imagine what would happen if the 65% of self-identifying Christians in the U.S. took truthfulness online seriously. It may not end our political disagreements, but I wonder if it would change the online world and the rancor and discord we encounter.

Will you take truthfulness seriously? Will you encourage this in your social media circles? Do you think I am speaking the truth? Will you share that truth?

Fostering Civil Spaces on Social Media

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Social Media: Image by Gerd Altman via Pixabay, [CC0 1.0]

Several good friends have recently announced their intention to leave Facebook until after the U.S. national elections in November. Their reason is their own mental health. The level of argument, vicious attacks, false or misleading claims, and fake news are putting off increasing numbers who once thought these sights to be a fun and social way to keep up with friends. Is that the way it has to be?

In recent years I’ve been increasingly involved both as a participant and a page administrator on Facebook and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good has been conversations, particularly around books, where people have shared about their love of books, what they love reading, what they don’t (and these can be polar opposites), and discussions where people learn from each other, and about new genres of literature and authors they might like and learn from.

The bad have been arguments where people go beyond reasoned and vigorous exchanges to slogans, epithets, and dismissive remarks in increasingly heated exchanges. Others often just shut down and leave.

The ugly comes when people resort to personal attacks on the character of each other, or of other figures, or even bullying and abusive behaviors.

What have I learned about creating civil spaces?

  1. If you are expecting perfection, forget it. People have bad days. Some people only want to assert an idea without defending it. People misunderstand each other. There are “trolls” and downright mean people. The truth is, we have bad days with the people who are closest to us.
  2. Probably the best thing that can be done is to have clear rules about posting online. Social media researcher J. Nathan Matias has found that clear posting rules with clear consequences both reduce harassment and increase participation. On my book page, I bar any personal attacks, profanity, and bullying, and any “marketing” posts for books (open that door and that is all you get). Others can include things like off-topic posting. Positively, I encourage respectful dialogue, and focusing on our common love of books. I think it doesn’t hurt to remind people why a group exists.
  3. Moderators or page administrators have to be willing to enforce rules. This is easier when you have them. It can mean shutting down toxic threads, deleting posts that violate your rules, and posting reminders about page or group rules when needed. I try to send a friendly message to those who break rules the first time. With most people that’s enough. Often they even apologize, especially when they realize they are dealing with a person rather than an algorithm. The only person I ever banned was someone who called another member “stupid.” When I messaged him about it, he called me “stupid.” NEVER call page admins names!
  4. Watch “vigorous” interactions closely. I try to let them go as long as they don’t degenerate to name-calling or personal attacks.
  5. Learn the limit’s of your particular page or group’s capacity and exceed them at your peril! Sometimes you discover them when you exceed them! I’ve found you can talk religion as long as you don’t go negative on others. Politics–forget it in this climate. Controversial issues? Sometimes, the issue is how “in your face” the post or comment is to opposing positions.
  6. On pages I curate, I try to mix it up to allow for diversity–serious with light, posts appealing to a variety of interests, posts from diverse authors and sources, with a healthy dose of humor–even if it is lame! While we have basic page standards, I want people to know that we don’t want this to be an echo chamber but a place where different people can meet.
  7. I try to promote engagement. Sometimes over a hundred people respond to the “Question of the Day” on my page, and many others check out the contributions.
  8. I avoid commenting on many posts except when I’m directly asked a question. I want people to have a sense that the page is about all of us, not just me.

And a few things about other pages and groups:

  1. Know and follow the page rules and never cross the admins.
  2. Engage what others post as well as respond when people engage you. Be friendly, and a little humor never hurts as long as it is not belittling to the other person.
  3. Don’t be that person who talks incessantly, or dominates posts.
  4. Learn to distinguish between things you disagree with, or are different from your experience, and genuinely objectionable behavior where you are disrespected. Don’t get into it with with such folks–just message the admin. They may not immediately spot your interaction if there is a lot of activity. This is what they get paid the big bucks for (usually nothing!).

Mostly, it comes down to the things that make for good conversations in any setting. Funny how we forget these when we are online. That, I suppose, is where the rules really help.

One final thing. Kindness never hurts.  Often when there is an unexpectedly strong response, there is often more going on than meets the eye. For example, someone responded very strongly to an article I posted on vaccines one time. As we interacted, I discovered the reason why. The person had lost a family member to an extreme reaction to the vaccine. The conversation moved from a discussion that could be controversial to a connection with the deep pain that comes from loss. A saying that is variously attributed is perhaps a good thing to remember in all our online interactions:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Review: Democracy Hacked

Democracy Hacked

Democracy HackedMartin Moore. London: Oneworld Publications, 2018.

Summary: An inquiry into the ways individuals and states have influenced democratic governments, how web-based platforms have made it possible, and some of the alternatives for the future.

Much has been made of various ways the 2016 presidential election in the United States was “hacked” or manipulated exploiting various tools and platforms on the internet. In this book, Martin Moore pulls back the curtain on how it was done, the vulnerabilities of our social media platforms, and both the potential for more influence along these lines in the future, and the alternative, which is not becoming societies of Luddites.

He begins with the different individuals and groups that in some way were connected with efforts to manipulate the internet. He begins by exploring those who are the “freextremists.” These are the denizens of image boards like 4chan that generate memes, whose survival on the board depends on how provocative, indeed how offensive, it is as measured by how often it is reposted. Many of the digital natives on these sites were alt-right or neo-Nazi types. Eventually a number became allied with organizations like Breitbart, and became a key asset in the media campaigns of the Trump elections with alliances with Trump operatives. In turn, Moore profiles plutocrats like Robert Mercer, who provided the capital that turned Breitbart into a web powerhouse. Finally, he details the various ways from hacked email accounts of Clinton staff, to various fake news and meme postings through fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, that influence was brought to bear by Russian entities on US citizens to influence the election. The author remains agnostic on whether these played a decisive influence, although he makes it clear that the Republican candidate used these methodologies or benefited from them to a much greater extent than the Democrat candidate.

The second part of the book looks at the social media platforms used to sway potential voters. The Facebook story is insidious, not only because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but also because Facebook uses an ad and promotional post targeting system utilizing the incredible amounts of information it aggregates on each profile through likes, posts, and clicks on posts. Psychological profiling enables precise targeting of contents to base voters, those who might desert a candidate, and undecided voters. Google’s pursuit of ad revenue also makes it vulnerable for similar reasons. Twitter is different in the ability of this platform to disseminate information, exploited heavily by bots and fake accounts (not to mention then candidate and now President, Donald Trump’s Twitter presence). A common thread is advertising and the use of personal information to increase ad revenues, making these ideal platforms for political exploitation.

The third part of the book explores directions democracy could go. We could move to a platform democracy where platforms deliver everything from places to stay (AirBnB) to transportation (Uber) to healthcare (something Amazon is experimenting with) and schools. There is a possibility of these platforms pervading every aspect of life, to the exclusion of the local, including local news media. More insidious is what Moore calls “surveillance democracy” where a digital identity is mandated by government and becomes necessary for voting, passports and travel, purchasing a home, or even shopping for groceries. He describes the system already in place in India, and how such systems are already being used for social control in China.

The alternative for Moore is not to “unplug” but rather to use technology to serve rather than manipulate democratic processes, including following Estonia’s model of creating policy around the individual and the privacy of their data, rather than large interests. He calls this “democracy re-hacked.”

What Moore seems to be doing is relying on regulation to create and implement policies to protect democracy. What bothers me is that it seems easy to circumvent many such measures, and only those without the resources or the savvy to circumvent such regulation will be shut down. It seems that until there are better limits on the data that can be collected about us (or greater transparency about that collection), targeting ads and promoted stories tailored to our interests will likely continue to find their way into our search results, timelines and Twitter feeds. Perhaps privacy and freedom from manipulative advertising (or even algorithms) might be worth paying for–perhaps a subscription fee to platforms like Facebook or Twitter. In exchange for not harvesting and using our data, we would pay an annual subscription (for example, I pay a certain amount for my identity to not be linked publicly to my URL, and to keep my blog site ad-free). There may be many users who would prefer this option, if private really means private, rather than government imposed regulation.

Whether you think democracy can be “re-hacked” or not, it seems important that a populace educate itself how to avoid becoming unwitting victims of political manipulation through the internet, just as we have to learn to be savvy about viruses, spyware, and other ways hackers attempt to compromise the integrity of our computers and our data. Moore at very least helps us understand both that it is being done, and how, and in doing so already provides us a vital tool in taking back our democracy–personal agency.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Don’t Get Faked Out!

1 Bob TrubeDid you get this message on Facebook recently? Did you forward it to other friends? How did you feel when you found out it was a hoax? Or did you?

One of the sad and dismaying aspects of online life are all the ways people try to mess around with you or even defraud you. From countless spam emails with dubious links to clever attempts to “spear fish” and get your log in credentials, to viruses that either scoop up personal identities, or turn your computer into a virus propagator, one has to constantly be skeptical of what one is seeing–and don’t click on that link.

I’m currently reading a new book called Democracy Hackedby Martin Moore, that explores the various way different entities attempt to influence our political behavior using personal data that we offer up online, through psychological profiling. We’ve heard the stories of fraudulent accounts set up on Facebook and Twitter to disseminate targeted “news” where it will do the most harm, or reinforce already existing beliefs.

What is most troublesome to me in all of this is the jettisoning of anything that remotely resembles the truth–whether it is a meme, a photograph, or a “news” story. The real intent of most of this is not to inform, but to provoke a reaction–usually negative–against an individual (usually an opposition political candidate) or a group (immigrants, some ethnic or identity groups, social classes, or simply those of another political party).

So, along with the tactics I use to avoid getting scammed by those after identity information, there are practices I’m developing to avoid getting scammed by “fake news” and other ways entities try to manipulate, rather than inform, me.

  1. Look at who is publishing the story or meme or photo. Do you recognize the source? What do you know about them? While some want to question established news outlets, which do have their own bias, you definitely want to question outlets with names you haven’t heard of.
  2. Are they making a negative claim about someone? Are they making a statement of supposed fact, either to support their own work, or undermine someone else? I find it a good idea, and do this increasingly, to fact check the story. Snopes.com is one of the best, being rated “center” by AllSides.com. This Make Use Of article suggests five unbiased fact checking sites.
  3. If you care about truth, get out of your “echo chamber.” Do not listen only to things you agree with or portrayals of what you disagree with by those who share your outlook. I follow both the National Review and The Atlantic.  I might check what Fox News, PBS, NBC, and even the BBC say about an important story, paying attention to the differences. Realize that social media will tailor news stories to what you have shown interest in. It’s no accident that you see products advertised that you’ve searched online. The stories you see in your feed are not an accident either.
  4. I don’t listen to PAC sponsored ads, and listen to candidate sponsored ads with a grain of salt. Our courts have said that the big money interests, conservative and liberal, can dominate our political conversation over the airwaves. I guess that is the price of free speech. That doesn’t mean we have to listen. Or if you do–fact check! Pay attention to the way the ad attempts to manipulate your emotions.
  5. Do your own research. The League of Women Voters often provides extensive information on candidates and issues. Look at records for those who have been in office. They will tend to do what they have done if they have the opportunity. Don’t rely on ads or even news stories to accurately represent this.

When many of us first discovered the internet, we thought this was an incredible place to be informed. We have to understand that for many, they see it as an incredible place to manipulate political behavior. In this as well as in areas of our private information, I don’t want to be scammed or faked out. That means vigilance as I read what comes across various feeds online, especially via social media, but also even in our more traditional media. The manipulators assume we will be too distracted, too credulous, and perhaps unaware of the psychological profiling they have done. I don’t want them to be right. Do you? Our democracy’s future may hang on how we answer.

 

When We Cannot Reason Together

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Raphael, The School of Athens

It seems to me that in many quarters of the United States, we’ve reached a dangerous place of no longer being able to reason together when we have differences–whether the aim is simply understanding one another, or arriving at some agreement of how we will live together with our differences, or how, without achieving perfect agreement, we can arrive at measures that we can agree on and implement that make things better for all. Whether it is in dysfunctional politics or the use of obstructive tactics to shut down speakers on a campus or violent confrontations on our streets, we seem to be becoming an increasingly angry society more concerned about our own rightness and power than the pursuit of the good,the true, and the beautiful, that, when I last checked, none of us has a corner on. It makes me quite concerned for our country.

I’ve seen it on social media. The most grievous is when I see people who don’t know each other attack one another’s character because they differ. I’ve seen it on my Facebook profile where two people I count as friends, but who don’t know each other, end up attacking each other, having no idea what a fantastic person the other individual is. And why is it that whenever one voices an opinion there are those who feel it is their mission in life to jump in, argue, rebut, or simply pronounce how wrong-headed and stupid you are? How refreshing it would be if someone were to say, “you seem an intelligent person, and you see things differently than I do. Would you tell me more about why you think that way?” It just doesn’t happen, sadly. Sometimes it tempts me to limit myself to posting cute memes and pretty pictures or uncontroversial articles–although that is an increasingly narrow category–it seems we have a difficult time talking civilly online about anything.

I really wrestle with what to do. I would love to have discussions with people who want to have genuine discussions that don’t reduce to “you’re wrong, we’re right.” But I’ve pretty nearly concluded that Facebook is not the place to do it. And frankly, I don’t have the time to dialogue with those who really aren’t interested genuine dialogue, but simply feel compelled to counter any point that they disagree with. And sooner or later on any issue of substance–someone makes a pronouncement with an implied (or explicit) put down of any who differ, ending any rational conversation. Over the years, that has come from different ends of the political spectrum, depending on the issue. Sometimes conversations end with battling pronouncements. On more than one occasion, I’ve just taken the whole thread down because it became toxic. But this bothers me–is that the end the commentators were striving for–to silence anyone who disagrees?

I’ve also considered one or a combination of these option

  • Deleting conversation stopping comments–but I don’t like cutting off my friends.
  • Deleting all comments–this has the effect of saying–“I just put this out there to think about” but precludes real dialogue.
  • Blocking people–in this case I might just as well unfriend them–tough when you do value them as friends.
  • Include a request that if people simply want to make pronouncements, they should do it on their own pages–except that those who do this tend to ignore such requests.

Probably my preferred option at this point is generally to stop making those posts. I don’t think they change minds and the virtual world seems to just foster either incivility or echo chambers and I don’t want to add to it. In the future, when you hear from me on Facebook, know that it is something that cuts pretty close to the bone.

What will I do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear from others who have wrestled with this:

  • I will keep blogging and reviewing books. Know that my blogs and reviews will reflect things I care about, and are consonant with the ethos of this blog–the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
  • I will work hard in my own online behavior to listen to understand before I write to respond. I can’t change others, but I can be the change I hope to see. Whether it works or not, at least I can live with myself.
  • I will look for ways to take real action in the real world about things I care about rather than talk in the virtual world.
  • I will find people who I can have face to face conversations with who are different from me–but committed to dialogue with civility.
  • I will vote for people who have track records of reasoning together with their political opponents to serve all their constituents. I will not vote for people who foster divisiveness. Sometimes, that may mean I will not vote for any candidate for a given office.
  • I will not expect politicians to implement ideologically pure policies or utopian solutions. I will not look for them to bring in the kingdom of God. I will expect them to legislate and lead in ways that serve not merely their “base” but to reach proximately good solutions that fairly serve all their constituents–in my school district, city, county, state, or the country.
  • I will also look to the role we can play in our participation in mediating institutions-churches, volunteer organizations, neighborhood groups, and other more local groups. When we put so much stake in the political arena, we give away the power and influence that may be exercised through these groups.

Perhaps what I’m realizing, even as I write this, is that online life is a poor substitute for real citizenship. I still believe that the online world can be a great place to learn, listen, and understand, and even change our minds if we are open to it. It doesn’t encourage deliberative argument, or careful, “longform” thinking between people. I don’t think that’s what it is made for. I, for one, will be looking for other ways to reason together.

I’m not sure I like this conclusion or feel I’ve reached a landing place that I’m content with. I’d really value your help!

Why “Bob on Books” is Now on Facebook

Bob on Books Home

Screen capture of Bob on Books on Facebook 9/10/2018

You might have noticed in yesterday’s post that there is now a “Bob on Books” Facebook page. Facebook kind of forced me into it. For as long as I’ve had my blog, Facebook allowed scheduled automated sharing of my WordPress posts on my Facebook profile. Facebook blocked this capability at the end of July but allowed scheduled automated sharing to Facebook pages.

I suspect this is part of Facebook’s approach to dealing with “fake news” and “fake account” sites and the propagation of this material. But it was at least a minor inconvenience to many of us who connected our profiles to our WordPress blogs. It is still possible to manually post links from a blog to your profile, an extra step. Harder than that is that when Facebook broke the connection, it also cut my “follower count” on my blog by 2500 in one fell swoop. Now that may not be all bad, because I suspect a good number of my Facebook friends don’t look at my blog but were still counted as “followers.” But it meant taking the time to set up a page and inviting people to “like” and “follow” it. That certainly has the advantage of people “opting into” your content, and perhaps is a better indicator of interest. Maybe it is more honest.

There are several advantages beyond this of a page:

  • People interested in blog posts and other material can access this quickly.
  • It allows me to post polls, articles, photos and quotes, and a “question of the day” facilitating ongoing conversation to a greater degree than the blog.
  • Facebook provides a variety of metrics for pages that you don’t have access to on profiles. I can also get another indicator of the interest in individual blog posts.
  • It is easier to post on Facebook than the blog, which anyone on Facebook can do. On the blog, people need to set up a WordPress account (not necessarily a blog) to post comments, something not everyone wants to do.
  • For a relatively low expense, I’ve added 100 followers beyond my own circle of contacts in the last month. I tried promoting the website for the blog, but this led to very few additional blog followers. I haven’t promoted posts.
  • I don’t have a good sense yet whether the page has translated into more traffic on my blog, although my summer stats usually decline, and this year have been on the rise. Unfortunately, WordPress stats aggregate all “referrals” from Facebook, so clicks from my profile, my page, or posts in other groups (which I do a fair amount of) are all lumped together. It certainly hasn’t hurt, from what I can tell.

The big minus that you just have to deal with is that pages are a revenue stream for Facebook and they are constantly inviting you to promote the page, an individual post, and your website. For some reason, I find the page loads more slowly than my personal profile, perhaps because of all the extra analytics. I would like to see Facebook streamline this (it may be better for visitors than admins who see extra content).

This might be more “inside baseball” than some of you may like. What I hope might be the case is that the blog and the Facebook page complement each other and maybe foster a bit of a “Bob on Books” community of people interested in interacting about good books, their reading experiences and how all this relates to our pursuit of the good, the beautiful, and the true in our lives. Blogs allow more extended development of an idea or review of a particular work. Facebook pages afford the chance for briefer but more frequent posts and interactions. I hope you will visit both

I’d love to hear your feedback. Even after five years of doing this, I still feel I’m making it up as I go….

 

Watch Your $%&*@^# Language!

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Chris James, (No Cursing??) Sign (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

Have you noticed that language is getting coarser? We were shopping yesterday in a bookstore (during National Book Day!) and I wandered over to the bestseller shelves. Two of the titles that greeted me were, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and You Are a Badass. At least the former title used an asterisk, but we all know which vowel it was replacing.

Book titles are just symptomatic of the proliferation of profanity in our media. It’s common to see either abbreviations or actual profanity on social media and to come across blog posts liberally laden with profanity. More than that, coarse words for defecation, urination, and sex lace everyday conversation. We use a word for excrement for getting our act together. We routinely use a word for urinating to describe the experience of being angered by something. The f-bomb seems to be an all around adjective as well as a favorite expression of anger. I could go on but you know what I’m talking about.

It’s not like I’ve never used these words. Particularly as a teenager hanging out with my buddies in urban Youngstown, our conversations were richly laced with profanity. For a period of my life, I thought it was kind of cool or edgy. I’d argue that it was only “dirty” because some people said it was. I’d argue that we were getting “real.”

My Christian journey started changing that. It wasn’t so much rules against certain words, as principles that spoke to the power of words in a community, and to shape the community around us. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).

I began to realize words have the power to evoke the best or worst angels of our natures, that our words build up others or undermine them. Words can hurt or heal. Actually, this extends beyond profanity to things like gossip where we feed on the meager fare of tearing someone down when they aren’t present to defend themselves. Cyber-bullying might be an example of the destructive power of our words, amplified by social media.

I won’t say that I completely refrain from these things even to this day. Catch me on a bad day struggling with the plumbing in my house, and it won’t always be pretty. If profanity occurs in a text I am quoting, I won’t delete it. I also realize that in both writing and speaking, there are times that a profanity may be the most apt word, and a euphemism or softer term doesn’t cut it. I can see a case in literature where contexts warrant profanity. The test for me is whether it fits or is gratuitous.  The restrained, but appropriate use of a profanity may actually capture attention that a profanity-laced dialogue does not.

That said, I am troubled by the increasing acceptability of profanity in our social and public discourse. I think it reflects an angrier, coarser, bleaker view of life. People might answer that this is the way they see it. Some, I’ve heard it suggested, use this as a “language of resistance” as in “since______ has been elected, everything is all f-ed up.”

I think I would answer that our words not merely reflect reality but help shape it. By words, Genesis tells us that God made the world. Our words can convince us that we live in a stinking latrine or that we are turning manure into gardens that are fertile and fruitful. Our sexual vocabulary can take one of the most beautiful experiences of human intimacy, and reduce it to a tawdry bodily function that sounds like simply another form of relieving ourselves. Or it can elevate the tender, and sometimes clumsy, coming together of two people who really care for each other into enduring love poetry.

I don’t want to argue for any form of censorship or a new prudery. The First Amendment protects even profane speech except when it is with the specific intent to incite unlawful acts. I happen to like the First Amendment, even when I disagree with the people and ideas it protects. But if you care about pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful, does this not extend to our use of language and choice of words? Should it not be of concern that the use of profanity in private conversation and increasingly in social media and public discourse is increasingly common not only in the general public, but even in faith communities? We may think we are simply describing the world or “telling it like it is” as we used to say. Do we stop and think that we are not merely evoking memories or a sense of things as they were and arebut also invoking a view of reality as it is and could be? What do our word choices reveal about the vision of reality toward which we are living? As a Christ-follower, how do I speak if I believe I have been called into a beloved community and into a life of infinite wonder and purpose and hope?

It’s not so much that I’m against “bad” words. I think I’ve already suggested that all words, even these have a usage or purpose in some contexts. Rather, I constantly find myself wanting for better words, for clearer thinking, for higher aspirations, to set goals for nobler actions, and graceful expression in spoken and written words. Am I out of touch with reality to want that and pursue it? Must I settle for a coarse world when we have so many hints of a world of goodness, truth and beauty? What do you think?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — “Social” Media

media-998990_1920A friend of mine recently sent an email around with this humorous look at Facebook:

Your morning smile!

For those of my generation who do not, and cannot, comprehend why Facebook exists: I am trying to make friends outside of Facebook while applying the same principles. 

Therefore, every day I walk down the street and tell passersby what I have eaten, how I feel at the moment, what I have done the night before, what I will do later and with whom. 

I give them pictures of my family, my dog, and of me gardening, taking things apart in the garage, watering the lawn, standing in front of landmarks, driving around town, having lunch, and doing what anybody and everybody does every day. 

I also listen to their conversations, give them the “thumbs up” and tell them I like them. 

And it works just like Facebook. 

I already have four people following me: two police officers, a private investigator and a psychiatrist.

–Source unknown

I do suspect that our parents and grandparents probably would have thought our involvement with sharing our statuses, posting our photos, and “liking” and sharing cute little emoticons with others a bit bizarre.

In the past probably the closest we got to social media was listening in on a party line. We didn’t use media to be social unless it was to subject our friends to utter boredom by showing the 400 slides from our last vacation. Often a slide would get stuck, turning the sleep-inducing travel narrative into a blue streak of cuss words. That woke us up!

Social was something we did most of the time face to face rather than through a phone or computer.

Summer evenings were a great time to be social–everyone sat out on their front porches and shared their “statuses” in the form of regular conversation with the neighbors walking by on a trip to the local DQ–the remodeling project in the house, the vacation plans, who was getting married, who was “expecting, or just how hot it was.

Social happened as we sat on the hoods of cars at Handels. It happened when we were hanging around at the pop machine at the local service station. It happened at the neighborhood bar as people talked sports, work, and sometimes about how hard things were in their lives.

Social happened at company and church picnics and family reunions. It happened on the midways of Idora Park and the Canfield Fair. Social happened as neighbors talked over the back fence while working in their gardens. It happened in the driveway as you changed the oil on your car or washed it up on Saturdays.

Social happened at the coffee shop, the mom and pop restaurant with the other “regulars”. It happened at the family grocery, where you knew the butcher, the produce guy, and the cashier. Often, they were all related.

We didn’t post pictures from our local sporting events. We went, we cheered for our team, we enjoyed sitting in the stands during a summer evening game. Better yet, we were on one of the teams, whether a local softball league, or an intramural basketball team or a pickup game of tag football.

We didn’t keep track of the number of “friends” we had. We just had friends. Instead of nearly running into each other staring at the rectangles we carry in our pockets, we waved, smiled, stopped and talked with people we met along the way.  We often had time for unhurried conversations, uninterrupted by buzzes and beeps and “dings.”

It’s funny though. At one time we all would have thought all this social media stuff a bit nutty. And here I am writing all this on a blog. And here you are reading it on a computer, on your phone, perhaps from seeing it on a Youngstown Facebook group. How did that happen?

Review: The Circle

The Circle

The CircleDave Eggers. New York: Vintage, 2014.

Summary: Dystopian fiction exploring the potential in a digital, online age to create a world where nothing is secret, and whether that is a utopia or a nightmare.

Imagine a world where you can know anything, and nothing is hidden or kept secret. Imagine a world where every person has a digital profile that collects all your health, educational, commercial, and social data, every picture by or of you, and makes this available to all. Imagine a world where we have embedded chips so that anyone can know where we are. Imagine we all wear body cameras that record our interactions and activity throughout the day. Imagine that all the archival information in the world may be searched to put together your family history, dark sides and all,.

This is the world Mae finds herself in when she gets a job with The Circle with the help of her friend Annie, a higher up in The Circle. She begins working in Customer Experience, but soon discovers that The Circle wants far more of her than to get a 100 rating on every customer interaction. They want her to share her life with the rest of The Circle–to give opinions via a headset, to give them her digital life, to join groups, to interact with others in The Circle.

This alone would probably have creeped me out and had me running for the hills. But Mae has been rescued from a dead end job with a local utility. She has a father with MS struggling with his health insurer–until The Circle finds out and adds him to their plan. The hooks go deeper even as she is cut off from much of her former life, eventually moving into a Circle dorm. After an incident caught on Circle’s SeeChange cameras catches her “borrowing” a kayak after hours, she meets one of the three leaders of The Circle, its public voice, Eamon Bailey. He helps her to recognize that the worst part of her act was keeping secrets, that we are better people when we do not hide but rather openly share our lives with the world. And in her “evolved” state of insight, she agrees to go “clear” and wear a camera recording all her activity, and becomes an celebrity both within The Circle, and in the wider public who love watching Mae’s life.

She tries to usher her former boyfriend Mercer into the wonders of being connected with the world through The Circle. He will have none of it, and when she attempts to promote his business, he leaves the grid, writing her a long letter warning her of what she is getting into. He is not the only one. She encounters a shadowy figure, Kalden, who also tries to warn her of what would happen if they should succeed in “closing the Circle,” creating a world where The Circle becomes a vehicle by which all is known, seen, and nothing remains secret. She is disturbed, and also fascinated by him, reflected in some rather kinky hookups in bathrooms. Yet she goes further and deeper into the Circle’s plans. What will this mean for Mae? Her parents? Mercer? Her friend Annie?

I’ll leave you to discover what happens if you have not read the book or seen the recent movie version (trailer here). I will also leave you with the thought that everything the book describes, as far as I could tell, is technologically possible today. More than that, the amount of information we voluntarily surrender about ourselves via social media, online and offline purchasing with credit cards, our banking and credit histories, the photos and files we store in the cloud, the customer cards we use at various stores and more, is staggering. Increasingly our medical records and health history is digitized and shared between providers and insurers, and we agree to it all. And the GPS chips in our smartphones track our every move. Everything in The Circle could or is being done. The only thing forestalling the tyranny Kalden and Mercer foresee is the lack of sufficient will and impetus to do it. We’ve laid much of the groundwork for such things either willingly or unknowingly.

More intriguing yet is the effort to usher in a utopia, the effort to perfect human nature, this time through stripping us of any secret worlds. Such a world substitutes social conformity (and who decides what conformity is?) for the harder won integrity that consists of living truthfully, living consistently with what one values when no one is looking. Instead of living one’s life coram deo (before the face of God), we substitute the human god of the grid, and the much more capricious fancies of its controllers and the mentality of the online mob.

Finally, the book raises the question of whether it is really a good thing to be able to know everything. Is the steady stream of status updates, online surveys, likes, tweets, news stories really making us more informed? More wise? Perhaps if nothing else, Eggers book makes us reflect on all the information we offer up, our addiction to the little rectangles we carry in our pockets, and the illusions all this fosters of a kind of omniscience that may be too much for our little brains to handle.