The Blog

Taking the Me From Social Media

In the last month, a prominent journalist and two State Department spokesmen have fallen afoul of the tweet. Similarly, Dave Weigel lost his job over a few emails. The fates of these four are a reminder of the perils of social media.
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Like many writers, I am madly in love with Twitter. At the same time, I approach my beloved only with extreme caution since the T-whale, like all social media, is quite the temptress. And I have a jumble of insider knowledge, pointed but cruel observation and sheer bubble-headed fatuousness that I take care not to fall into the clutches of that divine 140-character format, as alluring to a writer as the rhyme scheme of a sonnet.

In the last month, a prominent journalist, Octavia Nasr of CNN, and two State Department spokesmen, Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, have fallen afoul of the tweet. Cohen and Ross merely suffered public reprimands, but Nasr was fired. Similarly, Dave Weigel lost his job at the Washington Post over a few ill-considered emails. The fates of these four are now for me a constant reminder of the perils of social media, whether I'm on Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla or a blog commenter thread (and I keep telling myself to forget chatroulette).

Social media had already been flashing multiple danger signs this year, as schools and parents struggled to deal with hate speech on Facebook and hazing through texting, as we all grew increasingly aware that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have mastered digital outreach just as well as Organizing for America ever did. But the heady sensation of connectedness induced by social media whisks the user quickly past contemplation of the sands upon which these Internet relationships are built.

The speed of the back-and-forth, sometimes near instantaneous, and the collapse of space and time encourage a false intimacy. Indeed there is something about the feeling of disassociation that accompanies an encounter in virtual space that breaks down inhibition. Paradoxically, I am at one and the same time exhilarated by the possibilities inherent in the essential anonymity of the web as I am impelled to share more than I would ever consider doing in person, in real social situations. Virtual space is a version of outer space, where the weightlessness is a freedom from consequences, as well as from the demands of actual relationships.

This illusion is amplified on Twitter, where the relationship is particularly skewed. I know few of my followers on Twitter. They are like imaginary friends. Even as I am tweeting, I am constructing in my mind responses. Occasionally, like a message from a distant satellite, I get a DM (direct message) or retweet in reply. But the interchanges tend to be brief and fragmentary. The significance of this one-sidedness is that it fosters the expansion of self via imagination to fill the other half of the relationship. This phenomenon is also a potential pitfall for Google groups, like the one Dave Weigel had joined (400 journalists, apparently) and the one to which I belong. A pleasantly expansive feeling buoys the writing of emails to a group of people to whom you are "connected" by knowing only some. And the sneaky concomitant to that feeling is the urge to fill the unknown with bits of self.

This is the best explanation that I can come up with for the risky social media choices that four media-savvy professionals made in the last few weeks.

Succumbing to the siren call of social media had particularly harsh consequences for Octavia Nasr. Here is a woman, an Arab Christian, born and educated in Lebanon, who spent most of her adult life straddling the cultural divides all immigrants experience, and who in her work as a Middle East correspondent for an Atlanta-based news network, had to walk many fine lines in reporting on a riven world. Although most of Beirut turned out for the funeral of the Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, this spectacle was of little interest in the United States, even though the revered leader had supported suicide bombing and verbally attacked the United States. Nasr tweeted that she was "sad" to hear of his passing, because, as she belatedly explained, he had been a complicated man who also defended women's rights in a misogynistic world. But Twitter is not the medium for biographical nuance. Nor is CNN a go-to news source for the kind of lengthy reportage that supports nuance. Although CNN is now a worldwide enterprise, its persona is American homeland and homegrown, sketched in broad strokes.

If the Washington Post had been able to look past the Dave Weigel emails, in which Weigel trash talked conservative icons and movements, like the Tea Party, about which he reported for the Post, it would have been entertaining for us readers, as well as instructive, not to mention revelatory of conservatives, to watch Weigel, who in one email blasted "'real American' views, no matter how fucking moronic," re-establish himself with the subjects of his inquiry. But the persona of the Post, like that of CNN, is American public virtue, chiseled with a straightforward aspect (none of that two-faced Old World decadence here), with all it implies.

The missteps of Cohen and Ross are subtle. What could be problematic about these tweets? Cohen: "strong words from US techdel to Syria on intellectual property." Cohen: "charged 5000 Syrian pounds at an ATM and only get 500 out." Ross: "the government and older generation are in a very, very, very different place than Syria's youth." Ross: "With @jaredcohen in Aleppo, half looking out for the Syrian intel officer who interrogated him when he was here in 2005."

These tweets, from a State-sponsored trip dedicated to rapprochement, are implicitly critical of Syria. Another tweet, praising the local coffee drinks ("I'm not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino [sic] ever"), reminds us how often Americans continue to be Innocents Abroad. Are tweeters Cohen & Ross characters out of Mark Twain or Henry James? Does it matter? In the coffee tweet, the message is surprise. The State Department tweeter does not seem to recognize the centrality of coffee, long ago established, in parts of what used to be the Ottoman Empire. Or maybe he does. That's the problem with Twitter that cost Octavia Nasr her job. Only the best writers can wield the 140-character format for complicated thought. If Nasr had written, instead, a long blog post about the contradictory nature of the late Fadlallah, would she have lost her job?

Like Nasr and Weigel, Cohen and Ross ran smack into a larger problem: The tenor of their social media communications was counterproductive for the larger message and goals to which their employers were dedicated. State Department foreign diplomacy for the most part continues to be formal and hieratic in style. More importantly, Secretary Clinton's visits abroad always begin with accenting the positive. In every port of call, she lavishes praise, publicly, upon her hosts. Cohen and Ross, however, were tweeting in a manner completely at odds with the Secretary's tactics. The bits of us that Twitter draws forth -- the arch, the musing -- are not skill sets that best serve foreign affairs.

Social media itself is merely a tool. But the addition of the human component makes it much more than that. It takes on characteristics of a force of nature, and like any such, it is neither good nor bad. It is what it is. Wielding this force, four otherwise knowledgeable communicators have shown us how difficult it can be to control. They made the same mistake: filling in with bits of self space that seemed to be free but a corner of which was already occupied by their employers. The implicit and tacit part of a certain kind of relationship, this shadow presence goes everywhere, on and off the Internet, with professionals who have jobs in the public sphere.

You might suppose that in a time when Americans are focused on jobs above all else that people lucky enough to have them would always have in their sights the nexus of power in the employee-employer relationship and therefore keep in mind an employer's concerns. This does not mean that CNN, the State Department and the Washington Post were right (in fact, many pundits have criticized the decision-making) -- just that, in the end, the employer, fairly or not, calls the shots.

These mishaps are cautionary exemplars for a society that has traveled far, for better or worse, from the mindset of my parents' generation, men and women growing up in the Depression, losing their youth to World War II, and finally, perhaps not surprisingly, settling down into jobs at companies with which they more readily identified than workers do today. Really there is no need to expatiate upon the change, except to point out that social media by its very nature engages this cultural shift. If, despite all its positive uses, social media at the same time exposes the inherent weaknesses of individualism -- not to mention the sense of self-worth and (unintended consequences) of entitlement and overconfidence that my generation has instilled in our children -- what is it doing in other cultures? Easy prediction: We are going to find out.