OkSoWhatNow Podcast Interview

I had the pleasure of speaking with Alexander Jerri, who produces a podcast in the style of This American Life called OkSoWhatNow. The topic of the conversation is comments on newspaper articles–what to do when citizens have greater tools to provide feedback on news stories. The whole podcast is fascinating, and I come in at the 37:00 minute mark. Although this is the second time I’ve been featured on a podcast; it is the first time where an extended part of the interview is aired. There’s something to be said for this genre!

Listen to it here.


‘Like’ Isn’t What It Used to Be

Ain’t that the truth. I was recently interviewed by Kristi Gustafson Barlette of, about the dilution of the verb ‘like’ via Facebook:

The act of “networked liking” has diluted the significance of preference in the same way that the idea of “friend” has been diluted by the act of friending everyone and anyone through social networking sites, says Damien Smith Pfister, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. ”Whenever something becomes easier to express, it threatens to make that expression less significant. The more difficult communication is, the more significant it tends to be.”

The current trend toward “liking” is a rather unbalanced reflection of the human ability to like and dislike, says Pfister. There has been a demand to produce an official “dislike” button of Facebook for some time, which has been resisted by Facebook executives.


“Probably because Facebook recognizes that cycles of ‘liking’ produce positive feelings that further embeds people’s communicative lives into the site. ‘Disliking’ might turn the site more negative and ultimately cause people to tune out one more point source for cynicism and negativity,” Pfister says. “At the same time, more dislike buttons would allow people to express a slightly wider range of reaction. Right now, it’s ‘like’ or nothing — but wouldn’t our conversations be enriched more by knowing what people don’t like as well?”

Those of you who know me, or have been in my class, may recognize this riff: I’ve maintained for some time that the notion of ‘friend’ has faded to the middle distance as a meaningful term that organizes our intimate lives; similarly, I’ve made the point several times that the presence of a like button instead of a dislike button signals the knowledge of the Facebook hierarchy that positive affect keeps the eyeballs glued.


Can social media save the world? Maybe, but not if we assert ‘social media power’ uncritically.

So I’ve been thinking that in addition to posting the full text of my responses when I’m quoted in various media, I might start posting my responses which I send in reply to press queries that are not selected for publication. This isn’t sour grapes, but I do spend some serious time and effort in responding to these and they might as well get published somewhere, even if it is on my own blog.

I got this question last week: “As the We Movement launches this week — a state and potentially nationwide social networking site connecting those in need with providers of everything from housing, legal aid, education, health care, youth programs and clothing to soup and nuts (literally) — the question arises, is the power of social connections, supported by sophisticated search and match software going to fill the increasing gaps left as local, state and federal government services cut back?”

The article was posted a few days ago. A snippet:

Now, social networks are drawing on the high-tech tools of the 21st century. As more individuals and businesses push into the digital sphere, says Sherrie Madia at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “people are feeling empowered by broader connections.” There is a growing trend, she adds, toward “people and corporations looking for a higher purpose.”

Such is the case with the just-launched WE Movement, an offshoot of the Ramsell corporation in Oakland, Calif. The company had developed a sophisticated search-and-match software for healthcare services and providers, but it wanted to broaden its work. “We wanted to go back to the way things were decades ago when people helped people, neighbors looked out for each other,” says chief operating officer Tom Loker, WE Movement’s founder. Government, he says, is not the solution.

It’s kind of too bad that there was nothing in the article that hinted at some skepticism of this claim that social networks could supplant or fill-in for government services. My offering is a direct response to Loker’s sentiment that, as we used to say in Alabama (and still do) ‘the guvment isn’t the answer’:

It is tempting, especially in times where budgets are crunched and groups ideologically opposed to government services have gained the national spotlight, to think that information technology driven social networks can offer ‘governance without government.’ However, such claims should be met with deep skepticism. Social networking sites, and other forms of digital media like Craigslist and blogs, might well be good at small-scale “search and match” activity. If you have a bike collecting dust in your basement and I am looking for a dusty bike, then a digitally-mediated social network could very well be just the ticket for both of us. However, as you scale up–to health care, housing, etc.–then the resource-intensiveness of the activity will likely strain most social networks. While the We Movement and similar endeavors are laudable and may well work in some capacity, to think that they might be able to pick up all the slack from an under-resourced public sector is reminiscent of anti-government arguments that presume charity could supplant Medicare/Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Only government has the resources, and occasionally the willpower, to adequately provide public goods.

I wish the best of luck to the We Movement, but am frankly tired of reading articles that suggest that social media will solve all our problems. It’s almost been ten years–hasn’t the novelty worn off yet?


“The Elusive Face of the Web Hater”

I was quoted in the Lincoln Journal-Star this past Sunday in a nice article by Micah Mertes on trolls and anonymity:

With few exceptions, Web sites adhere to the 1 percent rule. This is the principle that 1 percent of Web users create the content, 9 percent comment on it and everybody else just hangs out and observes.

“A somewhat predictable side effect of this ratio is that the 9 percent who comment must be impelled by some stronger motivation than the rest of the lurkers,” said Damien Smith Pfister, University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of communication studies. “When strong opinions collide in an anonymous forum, it’s not unusual for trolling and flaming and all the other nasty stuff we associate with the rough and tumble of the Web to happen. It should be noted, though, that sometimes these argumentative collisions can be productive.”

The anonymity, then, becomes a double-edged sword: It allows for immediate, honest, unhindered discussion, but it also opens the door for the kind of unchecked aggression that deters kinder conversation.