A Discussion with Matt Armstrong, Executive Director, MountainRunner Institute, on the Uses and Limits of New Social Media

December 15, 2009

Background: Social media plays an increasingly relevant role in the promotion of intercultural and interreligious dialogue through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The Berkley Center Undergraduate Fellows report "Bridging Babel: New Social Media and Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue" examines how new social media fosters a vibrant exchange of ideas and advances knowledge and collaboration in our increasingly diverse world. This interview with Matt Armstrong of MountainRunner.us is part of that effort and explores the role of social media in building tolerance, along with the challenges and opportunities it presents for building bridges across cultural and religious divides.

Do you think social media and other forms of online communication will ever replace offline contact as the primary way people interact and do business with one another?

While social media expands our ability to network and make initial connections, in-person engagement is ultimately required to establish meaningful relationships because it puts a face on the connection. In other words, online relationships must be reinforced and authenticated by offline interaction. We know intuitively, and studies show, three-dimensional, physical world, connections feel more legitimate and real. Ever meet somebody in person, somebody you’ve “known” online, and say “it’s good to finally meet you?” Online media can extend your reach and open doors, but it’s really when you meet in-person that you create a deeper trust. People still like to shake hands and look each other in the eye.

How does new social media influence society in general?

New social media democratizes influence. Anybody can influence anybody. Today, the gatekeepers are challenged, bypassed, or ignored. People who may have been alienated or oppressed are now able to come together and make their voices heard, regardless of culture, ethnicity, location, or even language. A recent example is the impact of Twitter during the 2009 Iranian presidential elections. The Iranian protestors felt empowered because they saw that people were listening to and watching them through online social media and those outside the country felt engaged. Another, often over looked, example from that episode is U.S. media failed to report on what was going on in Iran and Twitter until they started receiving criticism from the blogosphere and Twitter. It wasn’t until the ‘CNN Fail’ hashtag tag started going out on Twitter that the mainstream American media started covering the Iran elections and protests. Before, the media thought the protests were a non-issue.

What do you think are the benefits of new social media?

Apart from democratizing influence, social media makes information both global and hyperlocal as it makes it extremely accessible. Social media is also visceral… you see videos and you have a greater sense of being there than reading text. Finally, it’s repetitive. When you see a lot of the same thing—duplicated and referred to across the Internet—it seems more legitimate, though it may not be.

What are its negative effects?

Social media, like the Internet in general, is in many ways a double-edged sword. While it can empower people for positive goals and causes, it can help others do the opposite. There are groups online for teenagers that cut themselves, there are groups on anorexia and how to do it better, there are deviant groups and hate groups. Terrorists benefit from using new social media, especially YouTube, as propaganda and recruiting tools. They no longer have to wait for media coverage to spread their message, now terrorists put their videos online in 30 minutes. Furthermore, terrorists can be their own media crew now. They, not NBC, not CBS, package and send out their message and the global media picks up on it.

What are the limits of social media?

While an advantage of online communication technologies is the ability to get information almost instantly, the problem with speed is that as it increases, accuracy falls away. We are pushed toward the short story, and when there is so much emphasis placed on fast coverage, fact checking sometimes becomes less of a priority.

Furthermore, you lose control of your message when you put it out there. If you are intending to engage a religious leader, you have to accept that he or she may interpret what you are trying to achieve as something else. And it may go sour on you.

Do you think the Internet and new social media makes people more tolerant of each other, cultures, ideas, etc. overall?

Online media is not a panacea. We talk about everybody getting together because of the Internet, and to some degree that's true because barriers are breaking down. On the other hand, the opposite is also true. The reason is that I can now find and exclusively associate with people who think like me. In the past, pressures to conform were greater. The Internet today, along with greater concentrations of émigrés, facilitates constant engagement with societies and cultures around the world. Diasporas may be connected, empowered, and even created by this new accessibility. Before, you had to assimilate because your home was far away. Now, you don’t have to.

Do you have any advice on how people can effectively use new social media?

Start with your requirements, not your capabilities. Too many people do the exact opposite. They say, “I’ve got Twitter, what can I do?” They think just because everyone is on Twitter, they should be on too. But Twitter may not be useful for what they want to achieve. That’s why you need to figure out you requirements first. Then, learn about and evaluate each online social media tool you want to use. What are its strengths and limitations? What kind of online culture does the tool foster and how will it help you? If you want to share content and get short messages out to as many people as possible, Twitter would work well for that. If you want in-depth communication or dialogue, Facebook or LinkedIn might be better for that. You’ve also got to use tools that are relevant in the area you want to reach. If you are trying to reach China, do you get on Facebook? No. You get on QQ. Know what you want to achieve, and then figure out the tools you should use.

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