Category Archives: Ethics

Study: Students Less Empathic Than 10 Years Ago (pause from news feed to feel surprise)

Hey, if you want some news that shouldn’t really surprise anyone, head over to Scientific American and download their 60-second podcast proving that today’s college students are less empathic than past generations.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone because today’s students — of any age — spend so much of their time online, at arm’s length, where it’s perilously easy to judge.

I’ve been pretty clear how I feel about anonymous comments: they bring out people’s inner stupid.  And meanness. But it’s become more than that.

There’s a reflexive judgment that occurs when you can view someone’s life from afar.   You have no context, you have no consequences; no intimacy or extenuating circumstances.  It’s sooo easy to judge: simplest thing ever.  What’s more, it’s forgotten in a second.  You’re on to the next post.  Your timeline/newsfeed has updated!

Living shallowly amongst many, with few consequences, will fundamentally change who you are.  Sometimes that can be fine; and sometimes not.

Take Formspring.  And I thought TruthBox was bad?  (Oh — and you’re right, is better).

At least Facebook is a “walled garden.”  Formspring  is more like the vacant lot that everybody cuts across.  Once you set up a profile, anyone can see it and ask you anything — anonymously if they so choose.  In theory, you must answer.

Here’s how open it is:  when I was trying to explain it to my colleagues, I told them they could look up my son — though they’re not friends with him in any social media sense.  They were incredulous:  “We can really look up some teenage kid we hardly know?”

Creepers.  But I replied, “oh, yes.  That is the Formspring way.”

As it happened, that day some idjit chose to inquire about my son’s anatomy.  Well, about one part.  That‘s what my colleagues read.  And, that‘s why their eyebrows were somewhere up beyond their hairlines.  Thankfully he had thus far declined any specifics.

(Note, I did suggest to son that since it’s well-nigh university visit time, he might want to delete those sorts of questions, otherwise he’d never really know what the admissions counselor was thinking during that all-important interview…)

You wonder why he sticks with it?  Because he also gets the “I think you’re cute/hot/funny” genre of posts.

But beyond the idiotic, it can get serious.  Stories are accumulating about cyberbullying, to the point of two suicides with alleged ties to Formspring in recent months.  It’s something to have on your radar.  And I can attest that this is not just media hype.    There are even business models springing up around this — ReputationDefender will monitor your online presence and clean up nasty postings and photos for a nominal fee.

True, there are other reasons to lose empathy.  We are more divided than we’ve ever been — you don’t even have to share news with people you don’t like; you can only listen to/read/watch sources you already agree with.  So there’s no uniting around one human cause, forget that.  Well not much.

And in America at least, though the recession has gutted many lives and lifestyles, we are still more comfortable and self-obsessed than in many places where teamwork is required to thrive.

Back to empathy.  Do you agree that digital communications and social media are contributing to this lack of empathy?  Why or why not?


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Filed under Ethics, Science, Social Media, Teenagers, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

FREE (from consequence) — or, Truth Box, My *!%?!

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. ”  Oscar Wilde

That’s the idea behind the Truth Box on MySpace. With anonymity, comes truth:  members can post to your “Truth Box” anonymously.  In theory, they can say they have a crush on you; or that they like your taste in music.

In practice, it’s more like the coward’s box.

In the same way that radio first gave away music without penalty to lure listeners and buyers, and that search engines and outlets gave away premium content without penalty to lure readers, we gave away the consequences of standing behind one’s opinion… without penalty.

Or in other words, in hopes of keeping readers glued — and returning — to web pages, we gave people the gift of saying things they would never ever have the cojones to say in person.

I bring it up because in one week I saw anonymous comments posted in a Truth Box that were made to wound, Iag0-like, without consequence; and anonymous comments posted on a news story about Detroit Public Schools that, had they been uttered in public would have possibly gotten the poster fired, put in jail or at the very least charged with racist hate speech.

Then I saw a review of a great little restaurant on Yelp; the review was so bad, I wondered: could it have been put there by a competitor?  But there was no way to know.

Oh sure, anonymity and the Dark Side of the Web are old discussions.  I tell my kids:  “don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.”  Right.  (In the case of the “Truth Box,” it wasn’t that hard to figure out it was put there by a girl who was mad at my daughter.  Confronted with it, she admitted it; but she looked like an idjit in the process.)

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if anonymity is the same gambit as “free music” or “free content” — with a similar tangle coming down the road.  Even though we sense there are inherent issues (um, child stalkers, hate speech, short sellers, just to name a few of the more tangible ones), it’s a trade someone is willing to make — because someone will make money from it.

Print newspapers and magazines have discovered to their peril that giving away content without penalty for using it backfired — content was expensive to produce, cheap and easy to take.   Musicians, writers and artists are still figuring out how to manage content on the Internet, with many of the same issues.

And in the meantime, We the People expect to take what we want, listen to what we want, and say what we want, when we feel like it — without penalty.  In fact, a recent case just protected anonymous comments from libel charges (it’s under appeal).

Websites like Fairshare track your content across the Internet and can tell who’s taking and using it without your permission.  And, a new startup, won’t let you review anonymously.  They say non-anonymous postings add credibility.

I’m NO advocate of BigBrother type following.  Stephen Baker’s well-written book and articles on the subject make me physically ill (if you haven’t seen them, go here and here).  But as it becomes easier to see who has been on your blog with tools like Lijit (not available yet for, or commented, or Yelped… maybe we should dispense with anonymous comments completely.

Yeah, it would take the fun from visiting some sites.  We comment now because we want to be heard: but do we want the world to know we said it?  We might not, if we knew someone was listening.

But here’s the thing: they are listening, anyway.    There’s not much privacy on the Web (see: Bank Intern and Facebook).  And there is content that is free and easy to share — legally.

So just to strike a blow against cowardice (and, heaven forbid, in favor of that vague term people call “personal branding” — of course, it’s tricky if your “personal brand” is a closet racist) maybe it’s time to go back to:

  • paying for something we really want, if it cost a lot to make
  • saying what we mean and standing behind it.


Filed under Ethics, Tech and hype, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

How to Save a Life: Humanizing Technology

The call comes at 5:40 a.m.  “We had to start CPR.  Your dad’s heart is having ‘funny’ rhythms.”  The voice is kind.

And unconvincing. Isn’t CPR used for when a heart … stops?

By the time I get to the hospital, I hear that they had to do the whole scene familiar to millions from ER:  nurses on my dad’s chest counting, “1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3!” and finally … the paddles and defibrillator:  “Clear!”

They bought him time.  But not much.

As if I could ever forget, it was an intense reminder that in medicine — as in technology — humanity makes all the difference.  

A quick story.

The cardiologist assigned to him in the hospital was clearly kind and very bright; I’ll call him Dr. Smaht.

Dr. Smaht explained to us that he would recommend an angioplasty for my father, despite his age; despite his other statistically complicating factors  — which he enumerated.

  • The statistical probability (by percentage) that he could die.
  • The statistical probability (by percentage) that he could need dialysis.
  • The statistical probability (by percentage) of a stroke.

Dr. Smaht concluded by saying, “obviously, there are risks, but it’s probably still worth it to at least do exploratory surgery — that’s an angiogram. Then if the contrast dye doesn’t send him into kidney failure, if it seems necessary, do an angioplasty as well.”  He waits, sure that the numbers will sway my father.  Percentages, to him, speak loudly.

But then, my father is hard of hearing.   So to speak.

My father inhales into  his oxygen tubes.  “I don’t even remember having a heart attack.”  He pauses, and looks Dr. Smaht  in the eye.  “I’m a newspaper guy.  I need a second source.  I want a second opinion.”

So I call my friend, Dr. Jay Reusch, cardiologist.  Married to my dear friend, Dr. Jane Reusch — one of the top endocrinologists in the country.

A few years ago, Jay Reusch helped my Dad deal with getting a pacemaker.  Last year, he was on the cover of Denver’s 5280 magazine*  (which for those of you who care, has been reinvigorated by former Red Herring and CMP poobah Luc Hatlestad, among others; it has blossomed in his tenure).

I gave Jay so much s**t about this.  I mean, every time I went to the grocery store, there was Jay gazing calmly at me.  I’d roll my eyes back at him.  And I know I wasn’t the only one.   We’re all thinking he’s on the cover because he’s sort of cute, and he’s a cardiologist.  AND he’s in a band (Dogs in the Yard — they’re good). 

Mea culpa.  I’m writing this post because the man saved my dad’s life.  Not just by being “a helluva cardiologist,” as my dad later called him;  but for being a good and confident enough doctor that he did not hide behind statistics. 

Where Dr. Smaht had painstakingly explained the numbers, the technical points, the statistical probabilities, Jay Reusch sat down like frickin’ Hawkeye Pierce and said:

 “Art.  If you hadn’t been in the hospital last night, you’d be dead.”

He took my Dad’s hand, waited until he had my Dad’s full attention and said loudly and calmly: 

“I’m sure you have questions.  I would too, and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Yes, there are risks.  But the benefits outweigh the risks.  I would have the surgery.”

He explained them, too.  In human terms.  My Dad said, “Well, you can’t ask for a better second opinion than that.  I’ll roll the dice.”

He came through the surgery very well.

It made me think about how often technology, designed as it is by engineers, focuses on what it does — not on why it matters. 

It is the first thing we tell our clients:  who cares besides you?  Why does this matter?  How can we put a human face on this technology?

Because if you can’t do that, you’re posing an intellectual answer to what may be a human problem. 

And that may leave the people who need you most… unwilling to roll the dice.

Thanks, Jay.

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Filed under Ethics, Science, Science and tech, Uncategorized

O..M..G… They can’t be in our Social Media Club! Gosh!

A few weeks ago, I attended an event where Kara Swisher referred to the whole social media scene as the “social media self-reflecting echo chamber” and some of its stars as “assclowns.”

There was some uneasy chuckling at this — it was, after all, a panel called “Is Social Media Killing PR?”  But mostly people knew exactly what she meant.    There has been much, much sucking up and self-referencing going on lately.

I could have left it at that, until I read a post on an otherwise usually very thoughtful marketing/buzz blog.  It warned all you unsuspecting innocents out there how to tell if your Social Media Consultant is really a carpetbagger.

It carried a breezy video comment with a young pup smilingly declaiming that there are actually people who don’t know what the Cluetrain Manifesto is, and knowing what it is should be a test (I am actually quite fond of the Cluetrain Manifesto, in the nostalgic way some people might be of, say, Goodnight Moon or their first love; but some of my more acerbic peers refer to it as the Common Sense Manifesto).

You know, it was harmless.  Maybe they just were trying to be cute. He was contributing.  And yet the combined effect reminded me of an endless string of cliche movie scenes: the stepsisters make fun of Cinderella:

The Socs make fun of Ponyboy:

The Mean Girls… well, you get the idea.

Some of the insights were fine.  You should be wary of someone who doesn’t listen.  Or whose first suggestion is a Facebook group.

But as one Twitterer told me privately, “the tone [of that post] made me cringe.  It was so smug.”

Yah.  We’re smug — because we broke the code, and we got here first.  Or more first-ier, anyway.  We know things these noobs don’t know.   (insert comment calculated to suck up to Michael Arrington).

I have nothing against Michael Arrington.  He’s great at what he does.  In fact, leave him out of this.  It’s the whole wink-wink say-no-more, you can’t be in my club thing that has sprung up lately.

Sidebar-With-A-Point: You know who got me into Twitter?  @micah (Micah Baldwin) and the late @mochant (Marc Orchant).  Two incredibly different men; two very different approaches.  About a year ago, at deFrag.   Marc started telling me excitedly about Twitter after Gnomedex; it was a “breakthrough” for him.  Micah laid out his arguments for Twitter completely differently.  But clearly, simply.  Not once did he say, “you’re too old,” or, “you’re too new.”

Both guys were amazing that way.  Brilliant, kind, open — natural teachers who had been at the social media game for a while.  They were and are symbolic to me of what makes the open web succeed: you give people the information, explain why it’s useful, and see how they connect with it.

Micah could have given me, you know, that half-smile that kids reserve for people over 40 when they see them dance, when they’re embarrassed for them.

But instead he was just straight-up.  “No, Twitter’s really cool.  You should do it.  Here’s the value for me:….”   He laid it out, and he made sense.    I was on Twitter that afternoon.

Yeah, several months after he and others were on it.

Maybe it’s the economic downturn — in a recession, some people want to make just that much more sure that someone knows that we know what we’re doing and knew it FIRST before those  new people came in and started LIKING social media and trying to USE IT and making it all, you know, social and useful.

And yes, the blog post had a point — because there’s money to be made in brandishing phrases like “personal brand” and “social media consultant,”  it helps to have some insights.

But part of why I didn’t get on Twitter earlier was because of a guy who was in some ways the opposite of Micah and Marc.  A blogger/social media personality who trails little odorless puffs of hype behind him like the low-carbon Highlander Hybrid he started driving after he saw it on Project Runway.   He is smart, he gets ironically and mildly underexcited about everything, he blogs about everything, people love to say they know him, he claims to know everyone.

I suspected that for him Twitter was the solution to that old Eminem song:  “It feels so empty without me.”  That was how I saw it — microblogging a tech raven’s life as it flew from one shiny object to the next.  So since he was excited about Twitter two years ago, I felt forced to hate it, even though he didn’t know and wouldn’t care.

I was wrong about Twitter.  I avoided this cool thing, just because he was annoying.  (But haven’t you done that?   Maybe it was a book, like The Tipping Point or Tuesdays with Morrie, that you avoided just because people flocked to it in droves and formed well, Facebook Groups about it.   Or a movie that could not have possibly lived up to the hype.  Or even Ron Paul, or Barack Obama.

But you give in –  read the book or see the movie, or listen to Barack Obama talk.  You  concede that though the hype is annoying — well, there’s something there.)

The whole social media self-referencing echo chamber is getting annoying.  But there’s still something there of value for people that are willing to walk past the posted insults of the  Socs, or the whispered taunts of the Mean Girls, and make their own way towards the amazing resources to be found.

My husband works only tangentially with the tech world.  He’s starting to find the value in Twitter as a tool for conversations with customers he didn’t know he had — just the way the Cluetrain Manifesto would want him to — and he wouldn’t know how to find the manifesto if it bit him in the …a**clown.

So please let’s stop the code words, do our jobs, follow our curiousity and trust that it will sort itself out, for the most part without having to act like Closed Web Snobs.


Filed under Ethics, Tech and hype, Technology and PR, Web 2.0