Arianna Huffington: "Fetishizing 'social' has become a major distraction"

Historians will review our virality-über-alles age & wonder what we were trying to do. Answer: not a hell of a lot

Published June 1, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

Arianna Huffington    (AP/Luca Bruno)
Arianna Huffington (AP/Luca Bruno)

Excerpted from "The Fabulous Future: America and the World in 2040"

When it comes to the way we tell stories, the defining factor in the next twenty-five years of media will be the hybrid nature of news. When I heard that Jeff Bezos was buying the Washington Post, one of the first people who came to mind was a fellow countryman of mine, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who around twenty-five hundred years ago said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” Or, as James Fallows put it, the sale was “one of those episode-that-encapsulates-an-era occurrences.” But even as the sale encapsulated an era that is passing, it also has the potential to expand the era we are in. The combining of the best of traditional media with the boundless potential of digital media represents the media of the future.

It’s time we move the conversation away from the future of newspapers to the future of journalism—in whatever form it’s delivered. After all, despite all the dire news about the state of the newspaper industry, we are in something of a golden age of journalism for news consumers. There’s no shortage of great journalism being done, and there’s no shortage of people hungering for it. And there are many business models that try to connect the former with the latter.

The future will definitely be a hybrid one, combining the best practices of traditional journalism (fairness, accuracy, storytelling, deep investigations) with the best tools available to the digital world (speed, transparency, and, above all, engagement).

Though the distinction between new media and old has become largely meaningless, for too long the reaction of much of the old media to the fast-growing digital world was something like the proverbial old man yelling at the new media kids to get off his lawn. Many years were wasted erecting barriers that were never going to stand.

Among the benefits the Internet has brought is the ability to relentlessly stay on a story long after a lot of the big, traditional outlets have moved on. The participation enabled by the Web allows people to engage with the story, contribute to it, develop it in small ways, take it deeper, and keep at it until it gets the attention it deserves. We’ve had too many autopsies but not enough biopsies (most notoriously over the invasion of Iraq and the financial meltdown), and we need to change that.

In the debate over new media versus old media, the lament is often heard that one of the things we’re in danger of losing from the heyday of old media is muckraking, crusading journalism. But by enabling participation, new media can actually help fuel stories that lead to real change.

Additionally, one thing that’s often missing from traditional journalism is news about what’s working. Yes, it’s important to know what’s broken and what’s gone wrong, but if that’s all we get, we won’t have a true picture of what’s really going on in our lives and our communities.

Too often news about things that are actually working is looked down on or saved only for Thanksgiving or the last five, feel-good minutes of a local newscast. The reason most often given? Because news about what’s working isn’t popular. But I can definitely say this is not true. At HuffPost, we’ve made a commitment to report on what’s working in our communities and all over the world. Our experience shows that people are in fact hungry for these kinds of stories—they are always among our most shared, and we found out that advertisers love them too.

Truth 2.0

We may be drowning in spin, smoke screens, and lies, but people are longing to cut through to the truth.

So how can the Internet and technology help us find our way? By continuing to give people a place they can turn to uncover the truth. The Internet has shown great promise in this regard. YouTube, Twitter, email, and turbocharged search engines have made it easier to expose the lies our leaders continue to tell.

At the same time, this is a moment of economic anxiety. In times like these, people are more likely to be driven by their lizard brains and react in response to fear rather than facts, making it easier for demagogues to scapegoat and peddle conspiracy theories laced with violent undertones. In this kind of atmosphere, people sometimes refuse to believe their own eyes. And it becomes easier to perpetrate the latest big lie.

So, to fill this need, I would love to see a new online tool that makes it possible to instantly fact-check a story as you are reading it—or watching it on video. A companion tool in service of the truth would instantly provide historical context to a story you are reading or watching, as well as a narrative that helps put the facts into a larger framework.

In a compelling post, Jay Rosen writes about the need for journalists to revive the art of storytelling. The Internet has been great for putting masses of data at our fingertips, but it has too often sacrificed explanation, context, and narrative on the altar of speed because, as Rosen puts it, “all the day-to-day rewards go to breaking news.”

I would love to see a dot-com innovation that immediately provides a reader or viewer with the background knowledge needed to better understand the data and information being delivered as news. The powers that be—both political and corporate—have mastered the dark art of making information deliberately convoluted and indecipherable. For them, complexity is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Our future tool will also automatically simplify needlessly complicated laws, contracts, and linguistic smoke screens. Speech replete with verbal gymnastics in an attempt to befuddle and bamboozle us will immediately be translated into clear and precise language. It will be Truth 2.0.

And just as our instant fact-checking, context-providing, and translation tools will bring us more truth, new dot-com innovations providing greater transparency will deliver a return of trust—the other great need we are facing today. The institutions that hold our democracy together have taken crippling blows in the last few years, leaving our country awash in disillusionment, anger, doubt, cynicism, and widespread wariness. Though disheartening, given all that has happened over the last decade—an economic crash based on greed, a bank bailout with no strings attached, and a gridlocked legislative process beholden more to special interests than the public interest—this breakdown is hardly surprising.

I would love to see an app that allows us to pull the curtain back on the corridors of power and see who is really pulling the levers. A great early iteration of this was provided by the Sunlight Foundation during a health care summit in 2010. During its live streaming of the discussion, the foundation offered a dose of transparency by showing, as each of our elected officials was speaking, a list of his or her major campaign contributors. It was simple, powerful, and it spoke volumes about the extent to which many players in the summit were bought and paid for.

The future version of this kind of tech will allow us to see who is funding whom and who is carrying water for which special interest, in real time and across every imaginable platform. The Sunday shows will be a whole different animal when we are able to effortlessly and instantly follow the money—and connect the dots.

My final wish may at first sound counterintuitive, but my crystal ball shows that the future will bring us a dot-com innovation that allows us to disengage from the 24/7 connectivity that the first twenty-five dot-com years have led to.

Plotinus was a philosopher in the third century A.D. who studied the sources of knowledge, wisdom, and creativity. “Knowledge has three degrees,” he wrote, “opinion, science, illumination. The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second, dialectic; of the third, intuition.”

The Internet has contributed much to the first two kinds of knowledge—science (in the form of easy access to reams of data and information) and opinion—but has in many ways taken us further away from illumination and our inner source of wisdom.

Hence the growing need to pull the plug on our hyperconnectivity. To disconnect from all our devices in order to reconnect with ourselves. There are already a plethora of Internet sites, mobile apps, and high-tech tools that make it easier to do just that—everything from yoga sites that let you take classes via your computer to mobile apps that provide guided meditation to devices that allow you to monitor your stress level.

And at HuffPost we have developed a course-correcting, free smart-phone app called “GPS for the Soul.” It provides tools to help us return to a state of calm and balance. I know it’s something of a paradox to look to an app to help us reconnect to ourselves, but there’s no reason not to use technology we always have in our pocket or our purse to help free us from technology. Think of it as spiritual training wheels. “GPS for the Soul” connects you to a personalized guide, with music, poetry, breathing exercises, and pictures of your loved ones, which can help you destress and recenter and gives you access to the guides of experts, other users, or your friends.

Virality über Alles

Now that going viral has gone viral, social media have become the obsession of all media. It’s all about social now: What are the latest social tools? How can a company increase its social reach? Are reporters devoting enough time to social? Less discussed—or not at all—is the value of the thing going viral. Doesn’t matter—as long as it’s social. And viral!

The media world’s fetishization of social media has reached idol worshipping proportions. Media conference agendas are filled with panels devoted to social media and how to use social tools to amplify coverage, but you rarely see one discussing what that coverage should actually be about. As Wadah Khanfar, former director general of Al Jazeera, told our editors when he visited our newsroom in 2012, “The lack of contextualization and prioritization in the U.S. media makes it harder to know what the most important story is at any given time.”

“We are in great haste,” wrote Thoreau in 1854, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” And today we are in great haste to celebrate something going viral but seem completely unconcerned whether the thing that went viral added one iota of anything good—including even just simple amusement—to our lives. The truth is that sometimes it does, but often it doesn’t. It’s not even a very complex question; the problem is that we seldom bother to ask this question before we dutifully hop on the algorithmic viral wave. We’re treating virality as a good in and of itself, moving forward for the sake of moving. “Hey,” someone might ask, “where are you going?” “I don’t know—but as long as I’m moving, it doesn’t matter!” Not a very effective way to end up in a better place.

So, the question remains: As we adopt new and better ways to help people communicate, can we keep asking what is really being communicated? And what’s the opportunity cost of what is not being communicated while we’re all locked in the perpetual present, chasing whatever is trending?

Social media are a means, not an end. And going viral isn’t “mission accomplished,” regardless of what it was that went viral. As James DeJulio put it, “It seems that overnight, the viral video has become some sort of badge of honor within advertising communities. CMOs without them are beginning to feel like the only kid in second grade without a Cabbage Patch [doll].” Just Google “how to make a video go viral” and you’ll find a trove of tips on how to hit the sweet spot, along with reams of analysis on why this video lit up the Internet and why that one was dead on arrival.

Fetishizing “social” has become a major distraction, and we’re clearly a country that loves to be distracted. Our job in the media is to use all the social tools at our disposal to tell the stories that matter—as well as the stories that entertain—and to keep reminding ourselves that the tools are not the story.

Someday, historians will likely look back at this virality-über-alles age and wonder what we were trying to accomplish. The answer will be: not a whole hell of a lot. Our times demand a much better response. All these new social tools can help us bear witness more powerfully or they can help us be distracted more obsessively.

Three Megatrends

So, when we consider the future of our media landscape, including the ways technology is rapidly transforming it, three trends stand out. The first is the seismic shift from presentation to participation. The second is the paradox of using technology to disconnect from technology. And the third is the game-changing shift from using social media as a way to make our lives more fun to using social media to make the world better.

The shift from presentation to participation means that the days of the media gods sitting up on Mount Olympus and telling us how things are have long since ended. People are tired of being talked to; they want to be talked with. Ours is a global conversation, with millions of new people pulling up a seat at the table—indeed, nearly three billion people will join the Internet’s community by 2020. That conversation has fueled revolutions and allowed media to engage with readers in totally new ways.

The lines between amateurs and professionals are being crossed every minute. As Clay Shirky put it, the word “amateur” derives from the Latin amare—love. The secret of anyone who successfully connects with the public, be they professional or amateur, is that they love to create, produce, and share. And when you love what you do, other people will love what you do.

So, if the first trend is a Garden of Eden blooming with engagement and self-expression, the second trend is about the snake in the garden— the temptation to stay connected to our 24/7 digital world, which actually disconnects us from the world around us, from our loved ones, and especially from ourselves. And millions of people are paying a heavy price, in terms of health, creativity, and ability to solve problems, for always being hyperconnected.

According to the Flynn Effect, intelligence quotient (IQ) measurements have been rising each decade since the early twentieth century. So, our IQs are getting higher, but our problem-solving ability is not keeping pace. We are surrounded by leaders with high IQs who make dreadful decisions despite great degrees.

Luckily there is a powerful, countervailing force—using technology to get away from technology. Of course, I realize there’s a paradox in the idea that, of all things, an app can help deliver us from the snake in the garden, but the snake is very wily, so our solutions have to be just as clever.

The third megatrend is that people are going from searching for information and data to searching for meaning. People are using technology to connect with others, not just around similar passions and interests but around the causes that most resonate with them. New means of communication have given us the ability to widen the circle of our concern.

For all these reasons, I see the next twenty-five years of digital media as full of promise—combining the best of traditional journalism with the best of digital technologies.

Excerpted from "The Fabulous Future: America and the World in 2040" edited by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro. Copyright 2015 by Northwestern University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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