Sunday, October 5, 2014

Social media content may not be what it seems

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 5 October 2014

Thursday, Sept. 18, was an unprecedented day at ISU with a heavy police presence in response to a statement made by an ISU sophomore about a shooting on campus that day. What her motivation was we might find out, if she even knows.

This essay is not about someone yelling fire in a crowded theater to just yell fire, or about ISU’s response. Rather, this essay is about what I have been reading and hearing about the social media site, Yik Yak, where the statement was made. I have not perused Yik Yak or entered its environment. For nearly a year, however, I have been participating in other similar sites, ever since I read that the under 25s are abandoning Facebook for other more anonymous sites (that their parents aren’t present on).

The responses I’ve read and heard about Yik Yak strike me as “ethnocentric,” that is, a response to a different culture’s (there are generational cultures) practices that are unfamiliar, and because the practices are unfamiliar they are deemed inferior and wrong. Some of the critics’ claims are quite strong: That the space is evil, atavistic, immoral, dangerous, racist, sexist, out of control, mean, and the list of negative descriptors goes on and on. Even a psychiatrist has deemed such social media, Yik Yak in particular, “dangerous.”

Yet, none of the critics I’ve read or spoken to have asked members of that “culture” what they think about it. I never heard of Yik Yak until Wednesday evening when the ISU Rave Alert mentioned it. I heard quite a bit of criticism from “nonparticipants” by noon on Thursday.

So, I have been asking ISU students if they ever use Yik Yak and what they think of it. Their responses fit with what I had come to understand about the “culture” of other versions of Yik Yak. First, not all I spoke to used it, but all were aware of it. Those who used it said that you had to use a lot of filters (not technological but mental), that there is some pretty raunchy stuff on it but also some really funny stuff, serious conversations, just about anything you might want. So, those who are familiar with the culture of these kinds of sites see it differently. They understand the need to filter the material. Those of us who did not grow up with social media are used to having our material filtered for us, leaving something of a false impression that what we read and see is representative or at least “respectable.”

But those days are numbered as there is a different culture now, with a lot of the “adults” cluck clucking about what they don’t understand. I don’t think the older generation criticism of these kinds of sites differs much from the “generation gap” between adults who didn’t grow up with television and their children who did.

One aspect of cultures like Yik Yak is that it allows others to indicate whether they like someone’s posting or not, to respond publicly or in private. In my meanderings on similar sites, I find them to also be wide open. Of course, it is easy to be distracted by the raunchy, racism, sexism, jingoism, practically any ‘ism” conceivable. Notwithstanding the grotesque, there are very serious conversations that occur. One of the best I had regarding Ferguson, Missouri, was on such a site, with people mostly under 30. One thing I’ve had to learn is to filter the “provocateurs.” That is my term for what is a common activity on these sights, posting provocative and outrageous statements to just get a response. I’ve communicated with individuals who bet others as to who can get the most responses over a specific time period.

One site, Whisper, even has a “popular” page where users definitely try to craft messages and sometimes clever “tricks” to get others to respond. Enough responses and your “Whisper” gets on the popular page. Without that understanding, indeed, the discourse looks “uncivilized.”

Later in the day on Thursday, a threatening note was found in an ISU restroom signed “Jihad.” I’ve neither seen nor heard anything critical of the medium of an anonymous note left in a bathroom. Had it been posted on Yik Yak, I suspect it would have evoked more “ethnocentric” responses about the lack of accountability on such sites as though the medium is the culprit.

As I teach my students, the first wisdom of sociology is that things are not always what they seem. Investigate, don’t pontificate.
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