Davis Merritt: Social-media prattle can carry a heavy price

02/07/2014 12:00 AM

02/06/2014 5:22 PM

The Twitter misadventure of Kasey Knowles, “National American Miss Kansas 2013,” is the most recent proof that cheap talk no longer comes without a price. Social media have created a subculture in which prattle can carry a heavy price tag.

The fact that anyone with an Internet connection can be instantly part of a worldwide conversation is seductive and should be a boon to humanity. But as Knowles most recently demonstrated, the lure of ego gratification at seeing one’s words Out There combined with a lack of sensibility can backfire.

In case you missed it, after Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl commercial with people singing “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages, Knowles decided to share her negative reaction instantly. “Nothing about that #CocaCola commercial was American,” she tweeted to no one in particular, meaning on the Internet to everybody. Probably harmless if you said that to a friend over a plate of hot wings, but she inserted herself into an ongoing Internet rumble.

The backlash forced her to the next level of the subculture well developed by careless politicians and other erring celebrities – the non-apologetic apology: “Sorry if you were offended” (translation: If you were, that’s your doing); excuse-making: “Social media has made it even easier to broadcast your opinions” (translation: The Internet made me do it); and pretentiousness: “I ask that during this time you please respect my privacy” (translation: I’m the victim here).

The advent of social media, like the advent of 24-hour cable and talk radio, has not made a single person smarter. It has only created a vacuum that the smart and the not-so-smart and the just-plain-ignorant feel equally compelled to fill with words, whether wise or devoid of thought or sensibility.

The First Amendment says that’s the way it should be. But having the right and the means to say almost anything doesn’t render the words credible or their utterance valuable. The marketplace-of-ideas concept assumes that in a free and open encounter, truth will prevail over falsity (verifying credibility), sound ideas will drive out unsound ones (verifying value).

That has proved true in the long term, but in the short term – and isn’t everything today short term? – the nuisance factor of those concepts is huge, cumbersome and tiresome.

Thomas Jefferson and John Milton never encountered the unmediated babble on ABC’s “The View.” John Stuart Mill never experienced talk-show host Rush Limbaugh or the contrived contentiousness of CNN’s old “Crossfire” show. William O. Douglas never tweeted anything. One wonders how their theories about free speech and the intrinsic value of ideas would have been expressed in our subculture of too many words too rancorously and thoughtlessly cast about.

Words can be tools or weapons, and employing them usefully creates a burden of careful calculation by the user. Surprise at a negative reaction is a sign of either miscalculation or simple disregard, and is a predictable result of impulsiveness.

An important and often ignored truth, even among professional writers or broadcasters, is that everyone needs an editor or a tape delay, that nothing should be issued without other eyes and ears on it. No one is that good.

But in today’s subculture, a microphone or an Internet connection is all that’s necessary to broadcast or publish to the world. Thoughtfulness, courtesy, knowledge and good intentions are neither required nor often employed.

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