Last week, there was a little news story which would normally go under the radar: Two girls, aged 10 and 12, were trapped in a storm drain in Australia. They were rescued.
A normal day, one might think, for Australian emergency services.
Of course not — because the girls called for help via Facebook instead of 000 (the Australian equivalent of 911 or 999), it became a social-media-newstorm. Mashable leads off their story with the words “Social media can be a bad thing.” On my twitter feed, N3W_Media asked “Are we raising a generation devoid of common sense?
All interesting questions. To Mashable: Apparently. To N3W_Media: Possibly.
The comments on Mashable’s blog entry paint a pretty horrid picture. People there are making strange assumptions — half of them seem to think that the batteries must have been dying. Others are suggesting that the ten-year-old girl stuck in a storm drain was looking for “hype”. Another suggests that this is natural selection in action. Somebody even suggests that texting the first person on your contact list would be the best thing to do.
For the record, the first person on my list is a co-worker in Bulgaria. Alex: if you ever get a text from me saying I’m trapped down a well, know that it is real.
Everywhere, people commenting. So few bothering to add thought, research or reason to the discussion.
My first thoughts wonder what I would have done in the same situation. At their age, of course, there was no such thing as Web 2.0, or social media. No Twitter or Facebook. Heck, there were no mobile phones. I would have yelled for help until I was hoarse.
Imagining that I had access to today’s technology, I am guessing that I would probably have called my parents. They instilled that in me — if I’m ever in trouble, they will help. It was more prevalent than any encouragement I ever received to dial 911 in an emergency. In fact, my first memory of the number 911 is the song 911 is a joke by Public Enemy. I was 13 when that came out, older than either of these girls. Even that “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercial is better burned into my consciousness.
Moreover, I think of something I read recently in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: People need to practice dialing 911. It seems simple, but in a truly stressful situation, you will NOT think. You will do what you know, what you practice. These girls undoubtably spend a lot of time on Facebook. They have probably never dialed 000. In Blink the person being interviewed suggests that they encourage people to practice dialing, but I have never seen such encouragement elsewhere. But I do not doubt that it’s true — in a stressful situation, we behave instinctively. It is not unreasonable that a 12-year-old girl would thus update Facebook, her default use of her mobile, instead of dialing a number she has never dialed previously.
This is not, as suggested earlier, “devoid of common sense”. There is no common sense in this situation. There is what you have practiced, and what you have not.
Let us turn instead to Mashable’s claim: Too much social media for the girls. Arguably true, but what are the alternatives:
1. They call 000. If you accept my argument above that this is unlikely, it probably is not happening. They will try to do something more familiar.
2. They call/text people they know. One by one, until they reach manage to reach someone, or calm down enough to think to call 000.
Is sending a mass update to everyone you know not better than option number two? Yet nobody would blink if they called their parents, who called 000. However, updating Facebook — a better survival strategy — is looked down upon because it is not option one.
So with all this in mind, why did I answer Mashable and N3W_Media as I did above?
Because I am not answering in terms of the girls. I am answering in terms of the responses I have seen on the Internet. Responses from Mashable, from N3W_Media, from Mashable’s commenters, and the people who retweeted Mashable’s story.
Can social media be a bad thing?
Mashable suggests that social media can be a bad thing. I agree. Most social media is done in small bites, which is encouraged even more with the rise of Twitter. 140 characters or less — say what little you can. It can be a good thing, forcing us to be concise. Limitations can spawn creativity and editing is never a bad thing. But it can also eliminate in depth thought and analysis, in favour of the one-liner. It can discourage sourcing and resourcing.
The flip side — the long side, if you will — is the world of blogs. The blogosphere, as it is known, is full of self-appointed experts on all subjects. Mashable and N3W_Media are no exceptions to this phenomenon. Mashable’s dedication on reporting any and all stories involving social media, with commentary, as they happen is commendable. It’s why I read it. But it is a mistake to believe that this makes their authors into experts, or even critical thinkers.
Knowing what is going on is different from having an aptitude for analyzing or critiquing it. The post’s author (and Mashable founder) Pete Cashmore is undoubtably a fantastic blogger who engages his readers. He is a former web technology consultant. No mention of his education or work experience.
Mr. Cashmore is clearly an expert on many things, and quite successful. But should we be taking his tone on this article — about the behaviour of pre-pubescent girls in an emergency situation — with a grain of salt? Given that he is a 23-year-old web expert, I would say yes. Yet his colouring of this article — something that appears to have been off-the-cuff — has influenced the way huge numbers of people see this situation.
So yes, Mashable. Social media can be a bad thing. It allows us to proclaim ourselves as experts in regards to things we know little about, without researching them, and have our voice heard and believed. It allows us to lose the ability to differentiate between who is in the know, and who is not.
The ability to think critically about what we read has never been more important than it is today. As much as authority should not be trusted on authority alone, it has now been scrambled into niche markets. Mashable reports on social media — but what about when social media crosses paths with emergency services? They have no expertise on the latter. Without research into the subject — apparently not done — their opinion should hold no special value unless it is supported by strong arguments.
That it does speaks to our inability to critically analyze the information at hand.
A generation devoid of common sense
So what of N3W_Media’s question, then? Are we raising a generation devoid of common sense?
I fear this might be the case — not due to the actions of the girls. They did what pre-teens with mobile phones and facebook accounts do when they need to get in touch. They posted to Facebook. When under stress, we do what we practice. Thinking comes later.
But what of the reactions to this story? A quick review of comments shows “dumb bitches”, “Sad and Wrong”, “ROFL tards”, “they deserve it”, to name just a few. Who are these people, so quick to pass judgement? How do they see something wrong in two trapped children calling for help? Sure, not everybody is reacting like this, but many are. I wonder where concepts such as giving the benefit of the doubt have gone to.
I know that I should not expect to find intelligent, mature behaviour on the Internet. I am disappointed nonetheless.
Moreover, I wonder why people do not consider what they would have done themselves in that situation — what they really would have done — trapped in a storm drain. Do unto others as you would have done unto you is not just the golden rule, after all. It is common sense.