Is social media creating a generation of people who are 140 characters deep on most subjects?
Do Facebook posts now constitute what most people consider news?
It’s a sad fact that many people now get their news from smartphones or banner headlines scrolling past their tablet screens. Newspapers are disappearing, and the 30-minute nightly news broadcasts struggle for audiences.
On the positive side, those who thirst for information can indeed find it—it’s everywhere and at any time of the day. Unfortunately, most people don’t thirst for information. They want to be entertained. Those man-on-the-street interviews started years ago by Steve Allen and most recently conducted by Jimmy Kimmel 1, Howard Stern, Jessie Watters and a host of others are clear illustrations of what little the American public knows about meaningful current events. It’s amazing how many voting-age millennials can’t even name our vice president, yet they know where Kim Kardashian dined last night.
A 2014 Wall Street Journal sponsored survey 2 on “How Much Americans Know About the News by Age, Education and Politics” showed that across political, social, and economic topics, younger Americans (age 19-29) knew less than those in older age groups. As an example, less than 20% of them could name the Prime Minister of Israel (Netanyahu) or the Chair of the Federal Reserve (Yellen), while for those ages 65+, correct responses more than doubled—much better, but still not great.
It’s no wonder it has come to this. We are living in an age where more media focus is given to immature Tweets made by our political candidates than to substantive positions any of them may have—the keyword being may. Political campaigns are now built around sound bites, Tweets, and posts. Presidential debates don’t get into details, not because details aren’t important, but because candidates and cable news agencies know that style rules over substance. Appearing authoritative is better than actually having the substance to back it up. The appearance is what most people identify with, what they remember. Off-the-wall comments rule the headlines, while candidates’ policies sit in obscurity on their websites, waiting for viewers.
The trend of getting news via cellphone Tweets and Facebook posts is unlikely to change anytime soon. The days of families sitting down together for dinner before gathering to watch Walter Cronkite’s Evening News may never return. To me, the way we get our news today, alone with our handheld device and without discussion, fuels more emotion than wisdom. It identifies our differences more than what we share in common. I fear it will take a generation of reaping what we sow before the pendulum reverses.
In the meantime, get used to watching the world pass by 140 characters at a time.