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A Confederacy of Onces

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What could a national conversation look like?

Once upon a time mom and dad and kids gathered in the evening in front of the television to be entertained. This family, sitting patiently and expectantly, had three channels to choose from. Plus the boring public broadcast channel. Back when everyone watched the same variety show or mini-series or disruptive news special, national conversations occurred. Broadcasts that enraged or engaged would spur citizens to remark to each other. And since everyone watched the same channels, national conversations were born. So we talked about Selma or Vietnam or the moon landing or the most recent episode of “Roots.” Sometimes, not often, we talked about what was happening in Washington.

Before TV, radio did the same. Before that newspapers. Media has a way of spurring national conversations, though the attention lasts only so long, because the job of media is to immediately bring the next new thing. Day after day. That’s their revenue stream and business model.

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When consolidated media ran the news business, it seemed to have more of a black and white/good or bad characteristic. With good guys and bad guys, a much better story emerged. And better stories sell more newspapers or generate better Nielsen ratings.

Social media removes some power from the established media. By hearing from different voices, context can be provided. Or not: Sometimes flame-throwing trolls dominate our inbox, just like on Fox News. The smart ones among us find ways to hear different voices, so we can see different ways to connect the dots. The rest of us relish getting riled with righteous rage by the people in our tribe who serve that function.

Lately for me and others, social media has connected dots and has turned a series of media one-offs into a bona-fide “thing.” Many find themselves paying attention and then cannot help but remark. Topics like the statistics around black deaths with police. It was blogs and tweets that explored nuance and connected the series of “onces” to show there is more—much more—than just a few one-offs. It was social media that kept the topic on the radar, not the established media.

Kerry Miller, on a recent The Daily Circuit, said she doesn’t like to use “national conversation” because it never happens. That is (I think she meant), national conversations never materialize. But I would argue that more and more often people are adding up the “one-offs” and putting them together in ways journalists and authorities had not predicted. It blindsided me that the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina capital would prove a lightning rod. Gay marriage has taken the nation by storm right up to the point where it became the law of the land. And it was the call for statistics to be reported about deaths occurring in police custody. All of these have been explored by social media in detail.

All of this has proven fodder for national conversations. That is, new topics that we may never have dreamed we’d find ourselves talking about are now falling from our lips at the coffee bar or on the drive to work. And here is perhaps where today’s national conversation differs from those conversations mediated only by established media. Social media allows for nuance. It need not be black and white because we’re not selling newspapers here (some are, of course). But the nuanced voices are helping us talk without forcing one way or the other.

I see these conversations developing every day. And they move from online to offline to online again. I also see smart journalists from established media finding ways to bring in nuance at just the right time.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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