The Public Humanist

Souls Imperiled, Humanities Intact

Seated in the front row, uncomfortably close to the speakers who formed a panel on the use of stories in the communications work of state humanities councils, I felt a little embarrassed when Kathleen Holt, an impressive woman who heads up the communications efforts for the Oregon Humanities Council, said that they had all but abandoned their social media efforts in favor of creating live marketing events in interesting, public venues around Portland. They had also redirected a significant amount of money to their quarterly magazine (distinctly not a newsletter), Oregon Humanities. The new magazine is akin to contemporary literary magazines like The Sun, right down to its thematic organization. On the power and usefulness of social media within the context of public humanities work, she said, glancing at me, that she was “unconvinced.”

The previous day, my colleague Pleun Bouricius and had I co-presented about the humanities and social media—this took place at the National Humanities Conference held in Albuquerque this past November. Our presentation was not an argument for the use of social media to promote public humanities, it was an anatomy of an experiment. Over the summer, in preparation for our panel, we chose one specific event and a few Mass Humanities media “products” to promote with Twitter, Facebook, and this blog. We crafted a series of Facebook and Twitter posts in advance and to coincide with the publication of our e-newsletter; we learned about hashtags (key words that are followed by Twitter users); we used the blog to publish essays that also promoted events, and we tried to generate the conversation that’s going on right now between at least Drew and I on the MH Facebook page. We tracked the number of MH Facebook friends and Twitter followers: both numbers went up. Modestly. We learned how to count the number of people who left our Facebook page for Websites we recommended, and we did some work to redirect people back to the MH Website. We loosely kept track of the hours we put into it: the work of creating a strategy, writing a series of updates, posting them, and tracking results took three staff members about one week of time each (spread out over about three months).

Presenting at the conference was a useful carrot for doing the work, but we had other reasons for learning more about using social media: we had just introduced a new media grant category for independent filmmakers, the Social Media Outreach Grant, which was created to help filmmakers use social media tools in a strategic way to generate early interest in their film, create a community of supporters, and generate meaningful interactivity on their Websites. We had come to the conclusion as a staff that social media savvy was a necessary tool for all independent filmmakers slogging through the often years-long process of producing and then distributing a documentary. Feedback from our focus groups with MA filmmakers, which we held to learn how our grant categories could be adapted to help filmmakers in a rapidly changing media landscape, seemed to point very directly to social media as an arena where some help was needed. We received six Social Media Outreach proposals this November. We felt that we had learned enough from our experiment to not be total frauds when giving advice to applicants. In turn, each proposal offered many samples of interactive websites for films, introduced social media approaches, and demonstrated the various skills and backgrounds of social media consultants who dare to call themselves experts.

For me, social media (Facebook primarily) is both a professional tool and a personal one. As a program officer at a humanities council who must be aware of means of generating audiences—real and virtual—I have to be aware of the technology that promotes events and makes possible other kinds of technological experiences that could involve humanities content. For years we’ve been supporting Web site development, and for years we’ve been seeing a gradual merging of Web and film. Some films are no longer distributed as DVDs, some are never broadcast on television, and many are released a little bit at a time on YouTube. Professionally, my colleagues and I have a responsibility to “meet people where they are,” (MA has the second largest number of Facebook users in the country) and think about creative ways to introduce humanities content to these new platforms.

Personally, it’s a different story, and I see four significant elements at work in that arena: the habit of Facebook use (posting and reading updates; viewing the photos and other kinds of media posted by “friends,” its addictive character); the content that I produce and read every day; its social interactivity, and its true purpose of providing information to businesses who will buy it. I don’t believe that my professional use of social media is a threat to the humanities. In fact, I think it promotes the humanities. But is personal use contributing to the undoing of humanistic knowledge? In other words, am I (and by extension, others) replacing the time and thought I would normally devote to humanistic pursuits like reading and conversation with the trivial natterings of Facebook dialogue? And if I believe, as I do, that the primary purpose of social media in general and Facebook in particular (as asserted by Drew) is “to gauge, measure and ultimately control the behavior of the crowd for marketing purposes,” then is my complicity with this system a bad thing?

Not bad, I’d say, but compromised.

As Neil Postman, cultural critic and author of Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, says in the YouTube “Book TV” segment that Drew linked in his piece, technology always presents a “Faustian bargain.” That is, new machines and techniques do give us something. And they also take something away.

Facebook has given its users a cloak of invisibility. We can peer into the lives of people we never expected to hear from again. We can also strike up or enhance real friendships and have real conversations (here I disagree with Drew—I’ve had some genuinely interesting and in-depth exchanges via Facebook—they are rare, of course). We can more instantly email people who are actually in our lives. We can see what interests our friends—we can learn about worlds we never knew existed. We can see new works of art, and we can learn about countless actual events that are the efforts of people who work to keep physical social institutions vital. Just yesterday I listened to several bands I’d never heard of by finding their MySpace pages—they had been recommended to me by Facebook friends. In lots of little ways my life has been enriched by social media.

But I am haunted by Neil Postman’s reference to the undoing of certain “psychic habits,” and I often feel that my brain is changing because of the number of hours a day I spend in front of a screen, involved in social media or otherwise. I’m hitting that fun age when a night of uninterrupted sleep is an anomaly, and if I could project a picture of what my brain is doing at 3 AM, I’m pretty sure it would be illuminated fragments of the thousands of screen shots that fill my day. That scares me. My involuntary brain-dumping is utterly mediated by technology. And I can’t help but feel that my nearly constant “full brain” (I don’t have room for another piece of information) feeling is also a result of placing myself in front of an open conduit of back-lit graphical information every day. Needless to say, this feeling affects moods as well. What has computer technology taken from me, from us?

I can’t answer that. But I’m pretty sure it’s a lot, and I think it has something to do with the kinds of information that we are not getting exposed to when we opt, instead, for virtual life. Think of the thousands of subtle, tactile things one learns by making something by hand, by attending a public event, by planting a garden. To the extent to which interaction with technology bars access to these experiences, I think learning in some fundamental way is impaired.

I don’t agree with Drew, however, that our individuality—as a core humanistic value--is at risk because of social media. Indeed, I think that individuality is promoted to an absurd degree via social media, and even the data it provides is designed to give companies access to deeply individualized marketing opportunities. More at risk is the ability for anyone to devote sustained attention to anything. ANYTHING. As Postman warns, the increased ability to do everything at home is leading to the “privatization” of life itself. Think of the role of television in American electoral politics, public policy and public opinion. I cannot disagree that social media poses risks to social interactivity in real time. It may erode souls, but I don’t think it erodes the humanities.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate