The accidental social experiment

I have longed wondered whether our ability to vet and consume information is weakening. In this age of endless information, streaming constantly, it’s a hypothesis I never meant to test, but I ended up testing it by accident.

Last month, there was a little Rogue Cheerios blogging snafu. I decided to sneak a post onto the blog–or I tried to sneak one in. My approach to blogging is to write and complete polished essays. Some of those essays can take time, and so I often start an essay that remains in the “Drafts” section of the WordPress Dashboard for a long time. Sometimes I start a blog post, commenting on an event or a milestone and I don’t finish it for another year. There’s no way to predict delays finishing essays–I could have been pressed for time or I couldn’t find the right words. In the end, it’s my own process and I recognize it’s benefits and drawbacks.

WordPress has this feature, though, whereby it timestamps the blog post when you start it. Sometimes, if you forget to change the timestamp, when you publish the blog post, it ends up in chronological order on the blog based on that start time even if you click publish weeks or years later.

So, a few weeks ago, I realized I never published the post I wrote on my birthday but I’d put enough time into it, had curated some photos to go along with it, and I wanted it to look back in next year when I turn 40. So early in the morning, I quickly skimmed it and clicked publish and walked away.

An hour or so later, I saw that I was getting some notifications on Facebook and Twitter. The timestamp feature had somehow failed to post it in chronological order, so the post had been shared to Facebook as though that day in September was my actual birthday. My birthday is truly in May. And as it goes with Facebook and birthdays, I immediately started receiving “Happy birthday” messages.

I was a little mortified. It was a simple mistake and I didn’t hurt anyone by accidentally convincing everyone it was my birthday.

And yet, people believed it was my birthday because the Facebook post said so. All they had to do was look up at that little section on the navigation which alerts users to their friends’ birthdays that day and they would not have seen my name. Better yet, if they knew my birthday was in May (which some commenters did know because they’ve known me long enough), they could have put two and two together. I added a comment to the thread which said something like, “Oops, not my birthday” and people continued to wish me a happy birthday.

A few people did comment in confusion. What was happening? Is it your birthday and we missed something?

We’re all reasonable people, right? Well, this was our test. Are we paying attention? Do we question our sources–even the reliable sources of information? And do we push back when we think something is off?

I’m not judging people–I was happy to get a few extra Facebook messages and an actual hug in person even though it wasn’t my birthday. I was even happy to be ribbed by my husband about wishing it was my birthday ten times a year (because that would be amazing). But what worries me is we’ve lost the ability to slow down, make sense of information, and question its reliability and validity.

We’re looking for sensational news or constantly reacting to crisis that we fail to do the basic due diligence like checking the publication date, the source, the author, to ensure what we’re reading (and ultimately sharing) is worth knowing. Everyone has their strategy: some click everything, some click nothing. Some engage with specific sources of news and some only a subset of news outlets. Some people will share content regardless of its age (like if it’s old). But having a filter or a strategy for engagement might be necessary as the news space floods with content and photos and statistics and stories. It’s overwhelming.

As our attention span slims down over time, I wonder whether we’ll become completely dulled to sensation and whether our filters will shift to autopilot. As it is, I rarely engage with news on social media because it takes time to do the due diligence. I have other seemingly unhealthy ways of finding news (like chain listening to politics podcasts and watching White House press briefings–it’s an affliction).

Rumors start with mistaken or erroneous information shared on Facebook and there are some rumor mills I want to avoid. Know this: my birthday is in May. Start all the rumors you want about my birthday being in September because I would love a quarter birthday celebration.

Who wants to wait for a half birthday anyway?


About rglw

Sociologist mom writes for work and for pleasure.
This entry was posted in media, politics, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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