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Communications Technology: power of good or cause of harm

I love technology. I love air conditioning and microwaves, refrigerators and electric blankets. I love being able to write this sentence over 6 times without wasting paper or ink or ribbons. However, technology has numerous negative effects we fail to see because we’re so amazed by the shiny objects in front of our eyes. (And yes, I see the irony of posting this on a technological advancement).

We think in pictures due to the most pervasive technology of the 20th century: Television. Neil Postman once asked, what’s the first thing to come to mind when you think of Abraham Lincoln? Most likely, it was either his stove pipe hat or his beard. You most likely didn’t think of text, like the Emancipation Proclamation or his Gettysburg Address.

In a hundred years, we’ll all be thinking in 140-characters (hyperbole, people. Of course we won’t. Or will we?). But maybe just as importantly, technology kills motivation. It also erodes original thought and renders individualism useless. Crowd-sourcing, the technologist’s point-du-jour, has helped us to stop thinking for ourselves. If I want/need an answer to something, why would I spend time trying to achieve an “Eureka!” moment when I can just go to Twitter and ask my 1,000+ followers for their help.

But this environment has created a plethora of false prophets who are smart enough to recognize an advantageous situation and capitalize from it. These people exist solely to spout fortune-cookie philosophies in 140-characters, but when someone asks them for a follow-up or more insight, we either get no response or the complete opposite, juvenile name calling.

These are the people that give names like PR 2.0 or Social Media 2.0 because they believe that adding a sequential numeral makes the original concept newer, fresher, more up to speed. Truth of the matter, it doesn’t. As existential as it sounds, all that will happened has already happened.

PR 2.0 is the same as PR 1.0, only with new, shiny tools. What’s different now? So instead of drafting press releases, we draft “social media press releases?” It’s the same idea: get your client’s message out. What would be different, PR 2.0-style, is if a company, say a fast-food company, decided to say, “You know what? Our food isn’t really good for you. It makes you fat, tired, lazy. In fact, our economic system depends on us making sure you keep eating our food. But we’re gonna do something radical. We’re going to tell you the truth. If you want to live, don’t eat here.”

PR 2.0 is another smoke and mirror concept. It pushes transparency while pulling the wool over our eyes. It diverts attention from the core principle of a solid communications platform: have a great message. Today’s communications technology produces a giant echo chamber that is filled with hollow noise. Because technology has destroyed any (and all) barriers to entry, anyone with an internet connection, or cell phone for that matter, can be a journalist or a social media expert.

Technology simultaneously makes our lives easier and more difficult. It’s great that I can use Facebook to find old friends from previous chapters of my life. But, maybe those chapters should remain closed (or at least hidden from the public).

Companies face similar issues with communications technology: they can wisely use social media as a customer service tool (Zappos), but can also be harmed by mob-mentality (Motrin). Companies can also fall into the lazy trap with technology, too, by relying on these self-proclaimed social media gurus. Using technology to buttress and disseminate a message is one thing. Going by the seat of your pants because technology enables you to throw more things against the wall with the hope of something sticking is something else. And this is what makes me nervous.

Corporations use communications technologies all the time. But it’s how they use them that makes them different. As communications practitioners, we need to understand the power of not just the medium, but also the message.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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