Sunday, May 3, 2020

Live and Loud

Until my recent stay at home existence, I never really had a big interest in checking out “Facebook Live” events. Let’s just say that the option for anyone to have access to this capability does not mean that everyone is particularly good at it. In most cases I found the prospect of observing live and in-person happenings to be squirmy rather than compelling.

But now the world has changed and my life is filled with Zoom meetings and classes, and I can choose to attend church either through Facebook Live or YouTube. Whereas in the past I would have crossed the street to get away from such experiences, now they are the only connection to people who don’t live in my home.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m probably still not going to click on a Facebook live of someone trying on dresses or interviewing their mom about the “facts of life”. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere when it comes to uncomfortable situations.

Speaking of uncomfortable, I noticed yesterday that the ability to type in comments while an event is in progress may not always be helpful. There was an online BOE Candidate event for District 4 hosted by Scott Ewart. I missed the debate itself, but many of the live comments generated by the event were hair raising. If you had any doubt as to the anger and unpleasantness generated by the BOE race this year, these comments alone would enlighten you.

This is not a criticism of Mr. Ewart. His goal was to provide an informative event. I’m guessing he did not anticipate the toxic quality of the discourse. After all, the focus of such an event is meant to be the candidates. After having read the comments I’d have to say that the candidates would have been better served had the live commenting been disabled. The resulting atmosphere was a cross between the crowd at a prize fight, spectators at the Roman Coliseum, and contestants on Let’s Make A Deal, with a little American high school football thrown in.

If we were attending a candidate debate in person, the expectation would be to listen politely. Perhaps an especially inspiring response would evoke a bit of applause. But having the event take place online where none of the audience could be seen appeared to take away the expectation for polite behavior. Suddenly it was more like the old Howard County Times comment section.

There’s a reason they disabled comments, you know. Sadly I think live commenting for this debate had the very same quality. If that’s what Columbia/HoCo looks like, we are in deep trouble.

A positive note about live commenting. I have seen it work. During church services it is used by congregants greeting one another, passing the peace, sharing prayer requests. I also saw the folks at Clark’s Elioak Farm respond to viewers’ questions in real time while doing a Facebook Live event with their baby goats. It can be a positive, interactive experience.

But perhaps it’s not a good idea for events where people are not likely to show self control. It appears to give people a feeling that there are no boundaries and that they don’t need to exercise the usual filters for self expression that they would (I hope) use “in real life”. A candidate debate should be about ideas, not about who in the audience is the loudest.

Our world brings us new technologies to explore. Sometimes they have unintended consequences.

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