Many of you may not remember a world without the Internet. Now social networkinghas revolutionized the net—a communications medium that has already radically changed how we interact. Books, newspapers, and maybe even websites may become passé. Spreading the news will never be the same. And while social networking is probably responsible for an incredible increase in environmental awareness, it is not a replacement for environmental journalism. It may actually increase the marginalization (putting it on the backburner) of environmental issues.
My concern over the popular platforms — that easily allow its members to throw lots of information (texting, photo sharing, forwarding news links, audio, video, anything digital actually) at each other — includes several issues. First, too few corporations mediate too many individual’s ability to communicate. You create an environmental group, for example, but no one can join unless they are a part of the platform. Or, the platform goes down and everyone is silenced. Or, the programming goes awry and heaven knows what happens to your personal stuff. Maybe those corporations won’t like what you’re saying.
Second, speed messaging of the kind that social networking encourages does not lend itself to serious journalism. Understanding and fully appreciating environmental concerns takes time and thorough research like this article The BP Cover-Up | Mother Jones. Unless you are orchestrating a major environmental rally, texting doesn’t usually sync with the often slow-moving environmental disasters like the loss of biodiversity.
Third, breaking up important issues like our environment into virtual groups online marginalizes what should be placed on the front page of the news outlets we view everyday—like it or not. Too many critical issues get ignored because social networking encourages avoiding what we don’t want to hear, but will most likely save our butts—like how Climate Change will affect your community. The proliferation of social networking does increase the spread of news and information, but it doesn’t increase the depth of that coverage. That is going to take money, education, and work.
Because social media is built around popularity, we are creating a virtual reality of issues interesting to us, but not necessarily important. Here’s the problem: “A Harris Interactive poll reports only 51 percent of Americans believe climate change is real, a significant drop from 71 percent in 2007. It is the lowest number Harris has recorded since asking this question 12 years ago.” Almost Half of Americans Don’t Believe in Climate Change – Earth911.com. This is not simply an idle fun-fact about us crazy Americans. It’s an appalling admission of ignorance about what’s going on with our planet. Ultimately, there is only one reality: our environment. If it isn’t working properly, not even the net will work.
I’m not completely down on social networking. It’s not that networking about our environment is particularly pernicious. I cannot imagine someone tearing down the expressway while driving and texting, “Hey dude, another absolutely large ice shelf in Antarctica just dropped into the drink, proving Global Warming.” There are useful purposes for this medium. Our Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Committeeis working towards a social network where we can immediately help someone in the Rochester, NY area find out where to recycle something before they curb it. And social networking might stimulate citizen journalists for our environment, texting or photographing pollution events to the media. And it’s a great way for environmental groups to get a lot more folks to sign on to environmental action emails.
However, if you look at the change in the dissembling of information (news) that social networking has wrought, you have to wonder at how wide and shallow it is. No nimbus of nonsense gets ignored on the net. We are a social animal and our ability to communicate with each other has in part made us a successful species. So successful that we sometimes get so self-absorbed in our own chatter that we forget that if we don’t have a healthy environment, there will be no communications.