I am away from home on business this week. I’m in Arlington, Texas, living out of a hotel. One of the perks of living out of a hotel– besides not having to make the bed or wash the dishes– is that the newspaper arrives right at my room every day before I get up. Granted, the newspaper I am receiving here at this hotel happens to be that stalwart of journalistic integrity, USA Today. And it is the lead story on today’s paper that has me once again asking the question: Why is this news?
USA Today’s lead story on the front page, above the fold complete with art, is: “Social, work lives collide on networking websites”. The story described how a woman updated her Facebook and MySpace pages shortly after she got married. She included pictures of her new wife. She received congratulations and blessings from her friends and family. And then a work acquaintance sent her a simple two-word note: “Nice pictures.” Her work life and her social life had collided.
Let’s walk through the basics of the story. She’s gay. People at her work do not know she is gay. She posts pictures of herself and her wife on the Internet. Unintended people find these pictures, view them, and then comment about having done so.
Again, why is this news?
I will set aside writing about the strong interdependencies between media and marketing for a moment: companies using the media to gain awareness with the public; media creating copy about otherwise flaccid goods and services in order to sell advertisements. I won’t go into that than to observe that social networking sites do not strike me as anything fundamentally different than the earliest college home pages I saw in the early ’90s other than to have a bit more automation and ease of use. Not that writing enough of the basic HTML to post “I ♥ Huckabees” is particularly difficult, but social networking sites have designed ways to make it even easier. That is MySpace’s contribution to the Internet, simple tools to make ugly web pages.
So we’re back to the fundamental issue of posting on the Internet. I liken Internet posts– of most any flavor– to walking into a very crowded room and broadcasting to anyone who will listen the intimate and mundane details of your life. Combine that with various methods of archiving data on the Internet, and those posts never completely die. They are always available in some form or another. Those stories were news maybe ten years ago. And for people who had been using the Internet since the 60s, I suspect they probably thought something similar in the 90s: this is old news. As a broader culture I think we started to realize sometime in the mid- to late-90s just how long a shelf-life data on the Internet actually has. Today, this is old news by any calculation. It is not relevant.
People are curious– some might say downright nosy. We want to know what is going on with people around us. From our innocent fascination with Boo Radley to the odious habits of Mrs. Grundy we all have a touch of voyeurism in us. The Internet expands our reach: we are no longer constrained to peeping in on our neighbors, but now can look at what is going on in most any neck of the woods. But the Internet does not fundamentally change the type of behavior, just the ease of access to it.
So the human behavior is certainly not new. Is it newsworthy for other reasons?
I am struggling to find a justification for the newsworthiness of this piece. I am failing. Yes, I understand that the boundaries between working life and personal life are blurring through technology. More people are working from home, or working on flexible schedules. More women are in the workplace than ever before. Mobile technologies like email, cellular phones, and laptop computers ease the ability to bring work with us wherever we go. This might be another example of that, I suppose. But it seems a pretty far reach to put a new spin on a story that has been developing for decades.
To paraphrase the voice in Field of Dreams, “If you post it, they will come.”