Publish then filter / Speak then think

8 Apr

“Publish then filter” is the new normal, declared Clay Shirky in his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody.   With their low barriers to entry, ease of production, instant access to a huge potential audience, and nearly frictionless redistribution of information,  social media have been hailed as the little guy’s edge, the reinventor of journalism, and the supreme challenge to those in positions of privilege and power.  And there is some truth in each of these claims.

But just ask David and Elaine McClain about “publish then filter.”   You’ll likely get a very different story from this retired Florida couple who were forced to flee their home in March after movie director Spike Lee retweeted a message listing their address as the home of George Zimmerman who has been accused of shooting an unarmed black teenager in Florida.  Ooops… wrong address, no relation.  Elaine’s son from a previous marriage, William George Zimmerman, had lived in the area more than 20 years ago and was not the person accused of the shooting.  But the facts didn’t prevent some eager tweeter from listing the elderly couple’s address or Spike Lee from retweeting it to his 259,542 followers.

The resulting harassment led the McClains to file a law suit again Mr. Lee, who quickly apologized and quietly reached a financial settle out of court.  But the story shines a bright light an aspect of digital media use that is rarely acknowledged.   The “publish then filter” story being hawked by countless self-described social media experts and promoters is a purely triumphalist account.  Look carefully for even a glimmer of the fact that new communicative opportunities bring new ethical responsibilities.  You won’t find it.  Not a word of recognition of the fact that lowering the costs of communication also shifts responsibilities from old authorities to new voices.  Nothing that anticipates Spike Lee’s error.  To be fair, Mr. Lee is merely a famous person who made a common mistake, but the reach of his social media touch instantly amplified the damage in a way almost unimaginable in the predigital era.

Speech, plain old talk, is also easy to produce, can instantly reach an audience, and can be easily repeated, summarized, mashed up and so on.  And every social group develops informal guidelines that regulate speech because of this.  The problem is that Twitter and other social media still occupy something of a social frontier where norms of conduct have not yet caught up.  Or have they?  Surely Spike Lee should have realized the potential consequences of his actions and thought twice.  There’s nothing that makes retweeting ethically different than speaking.  Perhaps we are so enamored with the “newness” of new media that we fail to appreciate that they are new in only a few ways.  The eagerness with which social media are being marketed and the one-sided perspective that results are doing us no favors here.

Just ask Elaine and David McClain.

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