Reading Between the Lines

I’m currently reading a dissertation as part of a reading committee. While I don’t want to reveal too much (there’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s not my work to release), I will share one point that has me thinking. In the author’s analysis of why the internet is conducive for fostering intimacy, she notes that even in the “lean nature of a brief electronic note,” much can be said. In other words, we can read a lot into what is there, and feel the connection between another.

While I think this can be true, I also believe something else can happen: we can read a “lean” message and OVER-interpret its meaning. After all, sometimes a brief message is just that — and there is no deeper meaning behind the words. I can see youth falling victim to something along these lines when getting a note from a crush or potential friend — maybe because when I was young, I was vulnerable to this. I could dwell on the smallest little interaction, searching for the meaning behind it while the person in question had long since forgotten it: after all, there was no meaning to be had. I have since seen this tendency when I was a sexpert/relationship advice person for teens. One of the most common questions I would get from youth all over the country was simply this: “does (s)he like me?” Of course, there was always a story to accompany the question, that went something along the lines of:

“I like this guy and I want to know if he likes me. Today, at our lockers, I dropped my book and he picked it up for me and smiled. I thanked him and he said he would see me later. Then, in math class, I think I thought him looking at me. I think about him all the time. Just yesterday he even sort of waved at me in the hall! What do you think? Should I ask him out?”

This was in the early stages of the internet (1998-2000) and IM was alive and kicking, but not in full swing. I can’t imagine the context I would have gotten along with these questions if there was extensive IM conversations involved. I simple 🙂 would turn into “he likes me;” a long conversation online might turn into a meaningful time together, when it was simply something to do while working on a homework assignment or talking to nine other people that night. Or, it could indeed be the start of a new love. We simply don’t know. When is lean, lean and when is it packed with inneundo and implication? And can we really ever tell without, well asking and as a result taking away the brevity? I’m not sure if we can, but I do believe it’s another layer we need to better understand if we are to appreciate how online communication shapes love and relationships.

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So Much for Truth in Advertising…

Based on a lawsuit brought on my an anti-abortion Christian group, Google is now allowing religious organizations to use the keyword “abortion” in their ads, according to the New York Times. This means that the sponsored links of these groups will be called up much like those from secular groups, doctors offering abortions and resource sites like Our Bodies, Ourselves. According to the article, Google will only allow “ads linked to abortion from religious groups as long as they were determined to be factual, and not graphic or emotional ads.” Hmmm. When was the last time I saw a factual anti-choice web site? Like, never. That’s when.

Rulings like these make it more important to teach media literacy to all people — young and old. Everyone needs to know how to assess a web site for quality information, and be wary of all sites that come up in the sponsored links, but not very high up in a regular search. This needs to be taught in the schools as soon as kids start to surf the net all the way through college. This resource is a great one for young people. Created in the UK, it takes a person through a series of questions designed to determine whether a web site’s information is reliable and accurate. If we all took the time to think about the information we are reading, and the biases behind it, I wouldn’t be so concerned about this latest news article.

What’s in a Name?

In a classic example of communication breakdown, a new study reports that over half (58%) of those surveyed do not know what “social networking” is. The international study did note that 70% of Americans did recognize the term. However, that means that close to 1 in 3 persons in this country have somehow not been exposed to the phrase, or simply don’t remember what it means. Implications? We need to be careful about the terms we use when talking about the phenomenon of interacting with others in these types of online spaces. I know I am guilty of talking about “social networking,” as I do not want to call out certain sites and brands when talking about the concept as a whole. Too often, MySpace is scapegoated because people talk about the dangers associated with social networking in general, but end up picking on the best-known of the bunch (too bad that survey didn’t ask the percentage of persons who have heard of MySpace specifically). But if using the term “social networking” alienates too many people, then we fail to get our message across. While I have no answers, I do believe this issue is important; much like my last post on cyberbulling vs. electronic aggression, I want to stress the need to come to some semblance of consensus on terms so that we educate the public, not confuse them. And given the Ivory Tower’s bad reputation for trying to claim expertise at the expense of being useful or collaborative, there is ample reason to prioritize clear communication about issues without using all those fancy and/or new words.

CDC Recognizes Cyberbullying

The Center for Disease Control released a report, Electronic Media and Youth Violence, on September 8th. According to the emailed press release, “Electronic aggression is an emerging public health issue,” and therefore should be acknowledged by educators, caregivers, and researchers.

I find it interesting that the feds feel the need to rename cyberbullying “electronic aggression.” Isn’t one term enough? Is it possible that people might confuse the two and think they are really separate things? I hope not. As an academic, I am often annoyed by the jargon that separates different camps. The last thing we need is to begin divisive investigations on this topic, based on a public health vs. a psychological/educational approach.

And, not surprisingly, the brief mentions nothing about how many times this sort of aggression has sexual themes. In fact, while searching the brief, I found no mention of “boyfriend/girlfriend,” “sex” (except for one parenthetical comment about how what they were referring to was NOT sexual), or “stalking.” While I am happy to see that the CDC is addressing this issue directly, there’s still a long way to go before adults see that the sexual nature of so many of these instances of electronic aggression cannot be ignored.

The Personal and the Private Goes Public (Health)

It’s all over the news, so it’s not exactly private. The 17-year-old daughter of Republican VP candidate Palin is 5 months pregnant. The Republican take on this is “at least she is marrying the father and keeping the baby” — they have to put a positive spin on this somehow. Democratic candidate Obama wants the rest of us to leave the families of politicians alone: “I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories,” quotes the New York Times.

But, I can’t back off. It’s the hypocrisy here that kills me. The Republican platform advocates for abstinence-until-marriage “sex” education — clearly, Palin’s daughter did not follow her mother’s belief system. She had sex before marriage, which according to her mother is the only option for persons when deciding what to do about their sexuality.

The Republican platform also tends to stress the role of the family and how it is up to parents to ensure that their children are responsible, successful human beings. Now, I am not saying that a pregnant teen cannot grow up to be successful. But I can’t help thinking that, if it were a Democratic candidate’s teen daughter who was pregnant that the Republican’s wouldn’t be shouting “this candidate has failed as a parent! I bet he will also fail as a leader. If he can’t control his family, who can he control?” Yet, here the talk is of course supportive: “Good for Bristol for keeping the baby!” “Good to hear she is marrying the father!” Is it? Studies show that people who marry at younger ages tend to have much higher divorce rates. And given the public spotlight of this particular relationship, I don’t think the odds are good for this young couple. Supporting a legal union between these two smacks of politics more than true concern for these two young persons who are trying to make the best of a tough situation.

It’s personal, but I am curious to know if these two used any contraception, and if so, did they know how to use it consistently and correctly? True, a woman can become pregnant using even the most effective forms of contraception. And it’s a shame that this young person is faced with an unexpected pregnancy — and unexpected baby — whether or not she used “protection.” I just wish that somehow this incident can change the Republican agenda which strives to teach children LESS about sex and contraception. Can’t Palin look at her family and think “maybe talking about sex isn’t such a bad idea after all.” “Maybe young persons should learn about different contraceptive methods and their effectiveness at preventing pregnancy?” After all, learning about different ways to prevent pregnancy — including, but not limited to abstinence — reduces the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy. Can’t we use this incident to open up dialogue related to healthy sexuality?