What am I supposed to be outraged about today? Let’s see, did Santorum say something stupid? How about Romney or Obama? Let’s select one sentence to take out of context to further our outrage!  Should I still be upset about what Limbaugh said? Should I sign a petition to demand him to be taken off the air for continually failing to speak in a manner that is palatable to anyone beyond his listening audience? As a non-listener, I demand he reform himself so the things I don’t hear him saying don’t upset me! 

What about the international stage? Surely there are plenty of things to be outraged about! There are despots, injustices, poverty, corruption and plenty of jerks to be mad at. Should I be outraged at Joseph Kony? After all, he is quite the monster abducting children and making them his slaves. He once killed twelve villagers by microwaving marshmallows! Or should I be mad at the Kony 2012 filmmaker, Jason Russell, for flailing along the streets of San Diego naked? How could he let us down like that?! Or should I be angry at Bashar al-Assad for shelling and gunning down Syrian citizens in the street? 

Assad?! That’s so boring… like something you would hear about on NPR. 

Even with prominent international journalists losing their lives along with the people in Homs, the outrage campaign against Assad never really flourished in terms of memes splattered on the walls of Facebook. Perhaps if I made a slick video about Syria with me explaining to my friend’s dog how Assad is a very bad man I could generate some outrage on the internet. Then I could form a foundation and collect funds to make more slick videos and vaguely “do something” about Assad. 

But I am not going to go down that road. I am already suffering from impulses of wanting to run through the streets of Flagstaff naked flailing at all the tourists heading to the Grand Canyon. 

They have dubbed this The Information Age and it certainly is but putting it that way seems too polite. This is also The Age of Dis-Information, The Age of Electronic Emotion and the Age of the Electronic Mob. 

Even credible news stories lose their meaning in the maelstrom of the web. The Trayvon Martin shooting started out as an important story about inept law enforcement and the dubious law that allowed for it. It wasn’t long before that story was completely lost and replaced by internet lynchings of both the shooter and the victim. The crux of the story was that there was no real investigation and, yet, without any investigation, people who have no idea what happened are rendering judgments from their laptops and cellphones thousands of miles away from Sanford Florida. 

Imagine a news story as a kid walking through a quiet neighborhood minding his business. Suddenly, a neighborhood dog catches his scent and a glimpse of something moving between the planks of the fence. Sensing danger, the dog barks. Then hearing the first dog bark, all the neighborhood dogs bark but none of them have any idea what they are barking at. 

This is not to say that the conflagration of social media cannot be used in a positive way. Social media helped to topple dictators in the Arab world. Occupy Wall Street effectively used social media to put the words “income inequity” into people’s minds after that long rising trend had been ignored in the corporate media for decades.   

That seems to be the full extent of the usefulness of social media. If you want the internet to work for you then you have to get people excited, outraged and emotional. I have noticed that political organizations have picked up on that (at least on the left). A couple of elections ago I had subscribed to some vaguely pro-Democrat email lists because I was interested in the issues they supposedly stood for. At first, their emails were mostly informative and about issues I was concerned about but now, with the next election coming, they have shifted towards trying to make me emotional… about women’s issues… about Rush Limbaugh….about Trayvon Martin. The problem, for me anyway, is that I don’t need one more person telling me who to be angry at. Outrage is not my chosen path of political action. I am more interested in issues, positions and strategies. One by one, I have been hitting the “unsubscribe” link after my so called political allies have tried to play on my emotions to get contributions or other support from me. I wonder if I am the only person who resents being played

Beyond the outrage, there is whole new realm that opens up which calls for action. That is where the internet fails almost as spectacularly as it succeeds in getting us worked up. In order to get something done there has to be a dialogue and the internet makes dialogue nearly impossible. The internet is much less a place to discover new ideas than it is for entrenching the views you already hold. Chances are, no matter how crazy your views are, somebody on the internet has your back. The internet is a great place to choose your own version of the truth and stick to it no matter how false it is. 

Another glaringly obvious fact that should be posted as a disclaimer on every contentious comment thread on the internet is that writing is MONOLOGUE not dialogue. I think most anyone who has had a relationship with a roommate exploded by an ill conceived note on the fridge knows this. Add to that the additional attributes of the internet  such as that you more than likely don’t know who you are talking to let alone where they are coming from.

“That zrgnarf3673 is such an ignorant jerk!” 

A two or three sentence response, no more how well worded, cannot possibly express a complete argument. I find if I am ever successful in having a constructive dialogue on the internet is because both sides are respectful and willing to listen to each other through many posts. That is exceedingly rare however. Most arguments, with people on both the left and the right, tend to break down in insults. I am a “socialist” on one side (as if that is a bad thing) and a “corporate shill” on the other. Another unfortunate aspect of a written argument is that statements can be picked apart, taken out of context and quoted back to you. Just like with the insults, the argument is no longer about the issue at hand. It is about YOU. 

I write this not just to simply point out the many obvious failings of social media but because I believe that the internet and social media are easily the most powerful and profound social development of my lifetime. Unfortunately, this great new technology has been dumped on us without any attention given to developing the skills to use it effectively. We are thrown into this onslaught of communication and information without any guidance on how to evaluate information’s veracity or how to effectively communicate with one another. We are left on our own to learn, for instance, to develop an appropriate sense of skepticism. Just because Einstein’s photo is next to that quote doesn’t mean he actually said that.  Just because someone says something you disagree with doesn’t mean you can extrapolate from that one sentence you read that the author of it is a total ignoramus. Hopefully, over time most of us will start to realize the strengths and weaknesses of the brave new world of the internet but I believe the world would better served if we gave obtaining some common sense skills for navigating social media half as much attention as a video about Kony. The sooner we, as individuals, learn how to take power of the medium rather than allow the powers that be to manipulate us through our emotions the sooner we can use this media for striking up a conversation rather than striking blows… for coming together rather than running back to our separate corners… for elevating rather than degrading our collective consciousness.