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A Virtual Unknown


How real is real in a digital age?

Jim Willis Published: March 19, 2013

The late media guru Marshall McLuhan once noted about the electronic media of his 1970s that, “We go outside to be alone and we go inside to be together.”

Think about that for a minute. And then think about the fact that this was about three decades before the advent of today’s social media.

Author and Professor Marshall McLuhan. 1967 (AP Photo)
Author and Professor Marshall McLuhan. 1967 (AP Photo)

All about TV

McLuhan was talking about television and its allure to bringing us into community, vicarious as it as, with our favorite television characters. I’m old enough to remember an episode of the cop comedy series Barney Miller where a distraught woman comes into Miller’s precinct to announce that her friend John had just shot and killed his wife Mary. But some quick detective work discovered that John and Mary were the woman’s favorite soap opera characters.

Reality was trumped by the virtual reality of TV. And for shut-ins like this woman, the virtual was more real than reality itself.

And then there’s the Web

One can only imagine what McLuhan might think of the muddling of reality caused by today’s social media and mobile media devices. Might he suggest we now go outside among the crowds, but only find ourselves in community with others when we sit alone in a crowded restaurant and commune with virtual friends on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram?

I’m thinking of the TV commercial wherein the guy on a date with a good-looking woman is more interested in the game taking place on the smart phone in his lap, and he’s doing a lousy job of feigning interest in the very real woman just across the table.

Others can see this?

But the confusion goes even deeper for those FB or Twitter users who somehow believe they are only communicating with a select few friends, and are thus free to say whatever they like, no matter how offensive others might find it.

Sometime after the last presidential election, I was watching a segment of CNN’s show about the news media, Reliable Sources, wherein Howard Kurtz was interviewing the editor of about a new watchdog role that site had assumed. Specifically, Jezebel was monitoring what was being said about President Obama after his re-election success last November.

Jezebel on the prowl

Among the many tweets were many that were blatantly racist comments, wrapped in vulgar language, and all tweeted by teenagers. Jezebel reported the tweets in its story, then contacted the schools that some of the offensive tweeters attended to let the principals know what was going on.

Hard to believe that anyone still thinks that the social media is the best place to go to post private messages, especially if we’re talking the very public Twitter posts. The past 12 months alone have shown us, time after time, that the quickest way to get betrayed by the Web is to use it to write things you wouldn’t want total strangers to read.

And that lesson has been learned, not just by teens who have been burned by such exposure, but also United States congressmen (remember Rep. Anthony Weiner?) and even Army generals like David Petraeus.

Privacy a myth

There is very little privacy left on today’s Web, and the reason is that whole idea behind the Web is openness. The reason it is called a “Web” in the first place is because of the image of the spider web and the intricate pattern of geometric connections coming from that web.

Those who choose to make themselves vulnerable on that spider web are always in danger of getting bitten.

Come to think of it, that also sounds like something McLuhan might say.