Unlike those purveying their wares in the Internet Week NY displays that surrounded his presentation stage, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nick Kristof kicked off his keynote “pitch” with remarkable modesty. In the technology world, he said, he felt like a prehistoric fish about to evolve.
During his presentation and the Q&A that followed, Kristof humbled social media, too.
Kristof joined the New York Times over a quarter century ago and has dispatched stories from many of the world’s most troubled places, such as Darfur. He started blogging during the run-up to the first Gulf War, using blogs to file reports between his twice-weekly column deadlines. His media “arsenal” currently includes a Twitter handle, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel and a remarkable sense of justice.
Kristof commented that it was not natural for him to be in social media. Once he started blogging, though, he observed his blogs were a means to confront conflicting opinions; by being respectful, he could diffuse anger. As he explored Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, he saw social media moving journalism from a one-way street to a two-way street to a community.
Communication technology has always been a tool of both governance and change movements. Kristof observed that the ubiquity and transparency of social media raises the cost of repression. Protests don’t necessarily happen when people are most angry; they happen when people sense they can get away with it. There’s a feeling of protection when surrounded by like-minded people and social media helps make and maintain those connections. Images, too, can become a galvanizing cry for protest.
Conversely, as is being demonstrated now in Libya and Afghanistan, the media lens can constrict military actions when there is perceived, or real, harm to innocents. Kristof suggested that if TV had existed during the Civil War, the North would have lost, because a populace aware of the extreme level of carnage would have moved to stop it.
Social media responsibilities
Social media, though, does not trigger revolution. Hunger, exposure to outside cultures and an educated middle class are among the reasons people take dramatic political actions. When the Internet gets turned off, people find ways to get out the word. Social media is a conduit, not a cause.
Kristof described the global actions of Internet technology companies as ranging from understandable in context to unfortunate to deplorable. He asked them to be transparent about their circumstances operating in countries that restrict them and about what they are doing in response. He did draw a hard line, however, at handing over the identities of people who may get arrested or killed.
At the end of the day, Kristof said, he wants to be read and he wants to make a difference in the world. With social media appealing to a younger audience than print, he uses social media to achieve both of those goals.
Though social media has changed the world, we need to keep its limitations in sharp focus lest we fail to distinguish between our tools and our mission. Kristof, by his actions and journalistic results, reminds us that the reality and immediacy of raw text and video benefits from informed perspective and curation. 140 characters can be profound, but that does not mean they always are. It’s not that Kristof is tweeting, it’s what he’s tweeting in the context of the questions he asks and seeks to answer.
At the end of his presentation, I was standing by a young woman who was staring at Kristof. She turned to me, saying she was afraid to speak with Kristof for fear of coming off like a groupie. When I suggested she could help him change the world, she stepped right up to him.
For additional perspective, see my April 2011 post, Experts Debate The Role of Social Media in Political Protest.