Is Social Media only Social Mania?

I have been watching events unfold in North Africa and across the Middle East and I am wondering if this is a well orchestrated attempt to drive up the price of oil, or a cheaper alternative to “Shock and Awe” that got bogged down in “It’s Draining Our Money Away.” The formula is simple: pick a repressive regime and flood it with social media and “…let slip the dogs of war.” Or are these events really occurring through the impetus of people•power fuelled by truly democratic and impartial social media?

One thing is obvious: nothing can be kept hidden in this world anymore, not even those now•proven•as•non•existent weapons of mass•destruction, unless you own the media that enables the information flow. And even then, there are organizations like Wiki Leaks and Anonymous who create checks and balances in cyberspace. Sidebar: don’t parade nude in front of your laptop anymore, guys, just in case your embedded camera has been secretly invaded by a spybot and you are instantly unloaded to You Tube and made a hero (or a zero, depending on your physical endowments) in minutes, for Big Brother is indeed watching.

But let’s get back to these revolutions taking place in countries ruled by despot dictators. It’s great that people are starting to express themselves (and how!) and that the smell of democracy is in the air. But like that “zero to hero” business, how can a people who have lived for generations in the dark suddenly emerge into the light and govern themselves under the benevolent but eccentric rules of democracy? Will they get it right straight out of the gate? Wasn’t it Churchill who said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”? Well, people emerging into the light after years of oppression and terrible loss are not going to settle for second best, even if it really is the best, according to Sir Winston. Would they end up to wandering in the desert for forty years before they find themselves, or find democracy like the Russians are still trying to discover, or would they fall into the arms of another repressive regime, one they can instantly identify with after having lived under several in the past, and being blinded and frightened by this newly discovered light of freedom, embrace the known devil in desperation, thus beginning the vicious cycle all over again?

Social media is great for unleashing mass hysteria and hype, we know that, but can it take the next step and create sustained and progressive dialogue that leads to understanding, knowledge and agreement as to how people should govern themselves under the rules of democracy? Does the very viral nature of social media inhibit it from the rule•defined approach, aka Robert’s Rules of Order, needed for good government? The events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa will certainly be a key learning for us in terms of how far social media can go, not only in dislodging despots but in leading people towards progressive and sustained self•government.

And while we are it, can you guys who control the oil industry out there, please put the price down a bit? There is absolutely no reason for you to jack up prices, just because a small country like Libya is cleaning up house. You know what happens to despots who amass private fortunes – you could next be in the sights of that maniacal leveller called social media!

Too much information

I was asked for my opinion on Wiki Leaks and the scandals erupting in cyberspace, where top secret documents suddenly appear to embarrass high•ranking military officials, bureaucrats and corporate barons. Are we justified in having this stuff floating around in the public domain, I was quizzed? Or should we let it all hang out and sock it to these honchos in high places who help each other out by launching wars, who cry for bailouts, and who lock the taxpayer into an “or else” hammer lock in order to fund their shenanigans under threat of terrorism or bankruptcy?

My first reaction was, “Dare anyone speak about this stuff in this day and age? Let’s see • if I am pro•Wiki Leaks, I could get on some nation’s no•fly list; if I am anti•Leaks, the hackers will block my Visa & Master Card accounts, erase me from social networking sites and punish me.” But either way, I could become famous if I go public with my plight. Hmm…

My next reaction was, “Another opinion on Wiki Leaks? Haven’t we made its owner a cult hero already with our nosiness? I mean, don’t we already know that classified stuff exists under any political system? Don’t we keep information protected via copyright, patent and trade secret laws? Aren’t writers agitating to have their copyrights protected and not splashed all over the Internet for free? Okay, and why do we have to have this leaked stuff piled on us in these digital dumpsters, filling our information intake valves faster than the garbage gushing into Toronto’s landfills? Hasn’t anyone learned that “less is more?”

Finally, I caved. “Okay, if you insist, I’ll venture an opinion, but you may not like it.” (Note to reader: Writers are opinionated people)

Disclosing information is good if it makes the world a better place, reveals injustice and leads to its correction – I’m sold on that. Enron was a good example, so was Mount Cashel. But there is a limit to disclosing information, especially if it harms people, property, or both, and especially if nothing good can be salvaged out of the disclosure. Didn’t we only recently coin that phrase “Too Much Information,” one that young people bandy around liberally these days in their text messages? For instance, if two neighbours are getting along, however tenuously, why upset the apple cart by saying to one that the other guy had once called him an asshole? Sure that’s disclosure, but does it advance progress or enhance relationships? Does it make the neighbourhood a better place? Do I need to know what my kids call me when they are mad at Dad?

So my opinion on this business: use common sense, guys! Whistle•blowing and mud•slinging are two different activities, although they both begin with a sense of frustration and a desire for change.

Oh that reminds me—I’d better check the showerhead in my washroom now. Just in case a hacker from either side of the debate, unhappy with my opinion, sneaks in a spy•cam and “captures” me on digital. The fame I have sought as a writer of strong male characters will come to me in the most sudden and unexpected way. I can imagine the instantaneous blurb on You Tube “Extra, Extra: Writer Lets It All Hang Out. Check him out • he is not as hot as his fiction!”

Monetizing Content in the Hippie Era of Writing

How does one make money at writing today? That question seems to be the “pre•occupation de jour” of most commercial writers and journalists. The cyber airwaves are chock full of content: blogs, wikis, e•mail, self•published books, e•zines. How does a writer insist that he gets paid for his work when there are equally good, or sometimes better, content being written by people who possess a deep understanding of their subject matter and an altruistic desire for sharing their writing, and who earn a better living through other means than they can or ever will as writers?

Encyclopaedias were money makers once, but their time ran out; software makers made money too, but they spawned the open source movement and jumped into services instead. Pagers were absorbed into cell phones, typewriters into personal computers, music CDs into MP3’s, videos into You Tube, broadcast radio into blog•talk radio, cable television into web•TV, long• distance phone plans into Skype, and now tree•books into e•books. Many successful products that once exchanged value for monetary benefit are now offered free or have been subsumed into other inventions. And content—a writer’ primary product, plucked out of a fertile imagination not given to many, and delivered in beautiful language—is now also… free?

I think of the hippie era when we played in musical bands purely for the love of expression, not for money but in protest against an out•of•touch establishment and all things resembling corporate greed. But that did not last either, did it? After the hangovers and love•ins wore out, we took haircuts, shaved our beards, bathed, bought new clothes, and joined the very guys we had protested against, to unleash some of the greatest economic growth cycles in history, creating unparalleled inventions, and unleashing unbridled greed that resulted in the meltdowns of Black Monday, the dot•com bubble, and the Crash of 2008.

And now, as if in atonement for our past excesses, we are going back to our hippie days of free drugs, free love and free expression, and giving everything away for free again, including our artistic creation—our writing. Even Big Business is calling this the Age of Creativity and seeking to monetize it. But the creative ones don’t seem to care; self actualization is triumphing over the baser needs of the ego and the pocketbook.

I support those trying to make a living at this very difficult art at this particular time in history. It is indeed a desired end: to do the things you love and to also earn one’s livelihood from it. But it seems like these bold souls are swimming against a tide that has, at least for the next few years, turned against them.