Get the full story, not just the hashtag

Image by Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussenvia Flickr

Meghan Maclaren | Contributing Writer

In decades to come we may well be defined as the “social media” generation. The ones who tell Facebook about our achievements, who judge our attractiveness by Instagram likes and find solidarity in Twitter hashtags. But the thing that makes social media so very addictive is the same thing that could cause – and already is causing – a very big societal problem.

I’m not pointing at the fact that when you go out in public, you’ll see more people with their eyes glued to their iPhone screen than you will having conversations with each other. That is a big societal problem, yes, and one that frustrates me in unbelievable amounts. But I think there’s a deeper problem with the simplicity of social media – and it’s a problem because people don’t know it’s a problem.

Social media can make anyone an expert. It can do a huge amount of good – through the level of attention it can generate, it has the capacity to influence change for the better. One picture or one Twitter hashtag can cause global public interest and/or division, but that doesn’t mean it is accurate. It only takes a few choice words to stir up controversy, and a lot of people who find themselves feeling strongly about that message in those few moments probably don’t feel strongly enough about it to actually look up all the facts and the whole story.

I read an excerpt from a book recently called “Made to Stick” by Dan and Chip Heath. It talks about a set of six principles that almost all “sticky” ideas have in common – six traits that make them memorable to others. The first one they mention is simplicity. Social media hands this to us on a plate. People browse social media during the breaks in their day, but they aren’t doing it to read lengthy articles or discussions. That’s why there’s a character limit on Twitter and that’s why Instagram is for image purposes. Yet they are hugely popular.

You only have to look at the biggest current issues to see these principles in play. “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” both relate to the race and police problems in the United States at the moment. Chances are, you didn’t have to look up either of those phrases – you already know where they came from and what brought them to public attention – they “stuck” with you. As well as simplicity, they both use other principles mentioned by the Heath brothers – concreteness, emotion, story and credibility (the video footage from the Garner case). In just three words, five out of the six principles of sticky ideas are hit, and they’ve sparked a huge movement in the US.

“Je suis Charlie” is another example, which is trying to promote solidarity with freedom of speech following the horrific terrorist attacks in France. Not many people would have known anything about the Charlie Hebdo magazine, but this simple message allows them to show their support. In both cases, the support that has been generated is overwhelming and almost reassuring – clearly, there are people that care.

The problem I have is that when something so inextricably complicated – race, religion, freedom of speech – gets boiled down to three words, surely we are missing parts of the story. We as a society shouldn’t need issues to be made concrete with specific, targeted attacks or a face we can put a name to to understand that there is a bigger issue there.

Maybe we want to feel a part of something in a world that is leaving us increasingly detached from each other. But it shouldn’t take a three-word Twitter trend to get us to care.

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