Dreaming of a jog around the old gym

By: Josh Eachus

Thomas Friedman’s 10th “flattener” from his 2005 book, “The World is Flat” is simply “the steroids.” From the world-wide web to workflow software to the rapid spread of information, the steroids referred to all of the digital advances that would come in a rapidly developing technological landscape. 12 years later, the visionary book is no longer a modern take on how the digital world will evolve. We’ve made it there, for better and for worse. Social media has brought an injection of “steroids” to digital information and workflow, but not without side-effects.

I began writing this piece in early January after witnessing what has become an all too common occurrence on Twitter. Respected colleagues, with high followership, allowed a disagreement to turn rough. Intentionally so or not, a tweet cannot easily convey emotion or purpose. The power of the written word is quite weak when it comes to relaying dialect, inflection and tone. However, one might argue that speaking in declarations is the verbal equivalent of flexing muscle. And in this particular case, somebody darn near went incredible hulk on their parka. Knowing there was sure to be a thewxsocial.com blog to all of this; I jotted several seemingly unconnected thoughts to address my concerns and couldn’t figure out why they didn’t totally tie together. Then I realized, I’m writing in tweets! Therein lay the overarching theme for that random stream of consciousness.

The “steroids” of our information obsessed society has social media users running so fast that at times we forget to slow down and listen to others. We’ve programmed ourselves to consume and produce 140 character snippets. But the truth is, most issues are far too complex for such short prose. During the aforementioned Twitter tangle, a group of upstart professionals in the weather enterprise began criticizing messages coming from a respected veteran. From afar, there was a rational explanation for one to sit on either side of the issue. With no consideration for that possibility, the upstarts continued to lambaste the veteran. To supplement the steroid analogy, it was like a group of young meatheads picking on an old distance runner. Later, some gave credence to ideas from the upstarts but also pointed out potential reasoning behind the veteran’s initial tweet—only to be met with the same negative characterization. This impropriety and self-righteousness of the upstarts’ response was upsetting. Imagine commending input from a colleague only to have your own dismissed as blasphemous. It was like a prominent political figure had masked as the upstarts! The bottom line is that in no setting would this be considered congenial discourse. Then again, let we be reminded Twitter is not an ideal forum for congenial discourse.

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Twitter is very much like an old gym that we all frequented at one time. At first, we went in together, for a light workout of our social skills. Then, somehow, “steroids” snuck onto the scene and workouts got more intense. And suddenly, the room was whispering around verbal behemoths. For the realm we affectionately call “WX Twitter” the platform serves as a way, “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” Fairly unique to the enterprise, Twitter is also one helluva tool for the immediacy needed in a weather warning situation. And who doesn’t love the lighter side of Twitter? We get amazing photos of nature, timeless tidbits from friends, memes, and parodies; if only @NWSPodunk had been around when Twitter first started! Sure some of this good stuff is still there, but charm is now more often squashed by digital ‘roid rage—complaints, debates and resentment.

Even some self-proclaimed communication-centric individuals of the weather community make a habit of ganging up on WX Twitter colleagues. The hypocrisy of that notion is staggering. One focused on narrowing the gap between scientific messages and society should carry on accordingly when conversing with a colleague, in agreement with them or not. The weather enterprise has thoroughly scrutinized the ability of microblogging applications such as Twitter to convey an effective weather message. So it is flawed to treat Twitter as an appropriate arena to fully qualify one’s own, or somebody else’s multifarious viewpoints on best practices.

Yes, there are overarching principles that guide communication, ethics and science. But, a principle is a not a rule. And each principle affects each one of us differently. We have got to stop speaking to one another without considering the intricacies of our respective areas of expertise.

A colleague from my “sociology of disaster” course once offered a thought worth remembering. “The more you know, the less you think you know. The more you think you know, the less you know.”

With that in mind, recall that a public sector meteorologist faces different challenges than a private sector meteorologist. Broadcasters, emergency managers and the National Weather Service all face vastly different environments within their daily workflow. I don’t think a single person reading this would disagree. So why would we talk to one another as though the same best practices apply to every individual in every situation? Assume there are extenuating circumstances before tweeting. What if most conversations started with a (privately asked) question? One can imagine a starkly lower number of conflicts.

Upset about the behavior of a colleague? Think there is a shortfall within the enterprise? Unnerved by the political landscape? In many ways, the social media and millennial revolution has compromised the ability of people to properly take tangible action. Why engage in a short-winded debate that will soon be lost in the Twitterverse? Why send out a hasty tweet from the forecast desk that can’t fully describe a perceived problem? Why blast out defeatist messages to the passively listening, nearly homogenous audience that is WX Twitter?

Suggesting that every message be accompanied by a citation would defeat the whole point of Twitter. But if compelled to engage a colleague of different mindset, it seems apt to submit that, in our scientific community, a strong comment accompanied by a link to literature might be met with more reverence. Regardless, there are some conversations that just seem best left inside of our glass house. Reserving stone throwing for annual meetings seems more prudent than publicizing internal issues for a society in which we are trying so hard to gain trust.

Twitter was once a voice for the voiceless. But as “steroids” have been injected straight into the veins of social media, it has evolved. Twitter has transformed into more of a voiceless voice. The WX Twitter police could cut back on patrols—tweeting a little less, thinking a little more. There is a difference! Instead of pumping an argument or an agenda, let’s be encouraging, thought-provoking and perhaps humorous at times. What if everybody in the field tweeted just half as much? Messages would be so much more impactful! Consternation is clogging timelines. Many are now fatigued by this valuable platform of the weather enterprise. Good, potentially life-saving information is being silenced through voluminous, unnecessary noise. Please, let’s stop this. The “blue bird” is less productive when so many are “seeing red.”

I am not calling for an end to all social commentary or conceptual debate on Twitter. After all, disagreement is the means by which science and society advances. Dr. Susan Jasko even provided a “code to go by” in anticipation of hearty discussion when thewxsocial.com was created last year. However, especially in these unnerving political times, we, as a community, might be better served to pick civil battles a bit more passively and perhaps a little less often. Let’s have more thoughtfulness and less impulsiveness in each Tweet. Let’s be kind and respectful to one another. Let’s lay off of “the steroids” and go for jog, maybe back to that old gym we call Twitter.

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