“New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.”
―Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
Neil Postman wrote those words in 1993, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more insightful description of the digital world in 2016.
Take Facebook. Like other social networking sites, people use it to share personal information, photos, and political views with scores of people — many of whom they don’t even know. Never has interpersonal communication been more pervasive and instantaneous.
Postman died in 2003, but he undoubtedly would use Facebook as Exhibit A for how new technologies indeed “alter the things we think about, the things we think with, and the arena in which thoughts develop.”
Shelley Best, an African-American woman on the Hartford school board, provides a timely case study of this “Facebook Effect.”
While attending a September training session on teaching students of color, Best said she felt “uncomfortable” as she noted a distinct lack of minority representation.
So the board member took a photograph of herself with three obviously white — and unknowing — attendees in the background. Then, she posted the “selfie” on her Facebook page with the following description:
“In a room full of folks talking about us (and the educational achievement gap) that don’t look like us . . . hmmmm . . .”
Welcome to the age of digital communication where everybody has a voice and isn’t afraid to use it. I recently highlighted one element of this phenomenon in an op-ed regarding how comments on news websites often mutate into a “nightmare of venomous, misleading, and anonymous tirades.”
While Best’s Facebook post hardly fits that description, her particular use of the social networking site had an immediate and profound effect. Specifically, Heather Zottola, one of the white educators in the photo, saw the post when one of Best’s Facebook friends showed it to her.
“I feel like she made me her poster child for white teachers in Hartford,” said Zottola. “The insinuation, and what hurt me the most, is she’s saying that because I’m white, I can’t teach children in Hartford.”
“Zottola wanted Best’s photo to be wiped off the Internet,” according to the Courant. “But her request to Best via Facebook went unanswered, she said, and after a plea to Hartford schools’ central office — Zottola remembered getting a call from human resources ‘to let me know that they would be taking care of it’ — the post remained on the social media site.”
By that time, the damage was done. Even a Facebook apology by Best could not stop the bleeding.
The Courant explained how Best’s apology “triggered another flood of comments, some criticizing the educators for being offended, and many assuring Best that there was no need to apologize.”
The sad reality of this story — which all began with a Facebook post — is how adults became preoccupied with their own issues while students in need remained in need.
What struck me most about this situation was how so many educated people seemed blind to the influence of social media. That is, couldn’t anybody see how Facebook hijacked the original discussion about educational justice? And why were so many professionals willing to accept a personal Facebook post from a school board member as a viable way to address public-school issues?
Consider how Best’s post elicited provocative responses, including this one referring to Zottola: “Look at the chick in the black and blue. Yikes.”
Or this one: “No one looks like they want to be there . . . yall look pissed.”
Did Best honestly believe that her Facebook post would dodge such indelicate comments? More to the point, are those the type of remarks that promote constructive dialogue regarding societal issues?
“‘To me, social media is everywhere and I engage people using the tool of social media all the time,’ said Best, taken aback that one post had morphed into such ‘conflict’ when she often muses on race, social justice and education, with inspirational quotes also sprinkled into her feed.”
But “engaging people using the tool of social media” can be a slippery slope. Facebook interactions are not board meeting debates or public meetings. Clearly, Best’s Facebook photo and accompanying description — “a room full of folks talking about us that don’t look like us” — was destined to strike many readers more as a comment on differences between people than as a way to “engage” them.
Once again, Neil Postman’s voice echoes: “New technologies alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.”
The lesson here is that we best proceed with caution when using social media, lest we create additional problems that only exacerbate already complicated issues. As Postman wrote some 23 years ago, “A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.