Freedom of the Press

I wake up, drip the coffee and flip open the MacBook Air.

Outside, my lonely newspaper lies abandoned in the driveway. I peruse Madison.com, Channel3000.com and then bookmark to my latest digital experiment.

Facebook. Yes, this morning I am reading Facebook instead of the newspaper.

For those Luddites who have yet to take the step, Facebook is a strange cyberland where participants continuously broadcast personal facts, opinions, moves and moods to a loosely organized universe of friends.

It came as both a delight and horror to my kids that I joined Facebook. The Progeny were tickled that Pops was willing to try it, and at the same time abhorred that something which had been held privately by their generation had now fallen into the hands of meddlesome, round-bellied boomers. Now those many party pictures of youthful and exuberant faces are being joined on Facebook by older faces with many more chins and far less hair.

My first reaction to Facebook still holds true: it is either a remarkable social tool or a monstrous waste of time. Or both.

Thanks to Facebook I now hold powerful information via Facebook Status Updates.

For instance, I know that Jeff Kurz has installed a garbage disposal all by himself.

Paul Soglin is surveying his backyard.

And George Hesselberg is reading a detective novel in its original Norwegian.

I am also aware of 25 Random Things about people I see every day. These Random Things are alternately touching, funny, sad, revealing or just barely amusing. These random facts also reveal the shocking news that everyone flies in their dreams.

(Also, just so you know, everyone on Facebook loves Barack Obama. So he has major laptop support behind him as he tries to figure out how to prevent us from living together in one large Sub-Zero refrigerator box.)

Facebook also shocks me. I cannot believe how many people want to be my friend! Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am completely unlikable. And yet, every day someone comes knocking on my digital door asking to be a pal.

Are these fools aware of how loud I get after three beers? Don’t they know how often I interrupt? Do they have any understanding how irritating it is to hear me refer to a movie I wrote that no one ever saw?

It’s really amazing! Facebook wants everyone to be my friend! You don’t even have to know me! I am not sure of the long-term impact of Facebook but one thing is certain: it has clearly succeeded in lowering the minimum daily requirement of friendship to zero.

Facebook also helps you reconnect with people you have not talked to in a long time, and reminds you why.

Snarky observations aside, Facebook is revelatory. It goes a long way in explaining why my newspaper is still at the end of the driveway. And why Time magazine is now only four pages long. Citizen publishing is putting old print media into the kind of freefall seen only when the chute fails to open.

For every boring, self-indulgent status update on Facebook or lifeless blog on the web or cowardly message post at the end of a column, there are also smart, clever, well-written observations that are more engaging, fresh and unpredictable than John Nichols, Mike Lucas or Roundy Coughlin.

A read of Facebook, as well as blogs, message boards and online news sites like The Daily Beast, reveal a burst of citizen publishing that is shocking and depressing, but also revealing and powerful. Just like newspapers used to be.

Citizen publishing is changing the rules of journalism by ignoring them. The web, even Facebook, easily illustrates that you don’t need to go to journalism school or write for a newspaper to be able to communicate or forward important, thoughtful, entertaining things.

There is much harrumphing as our local newspapers evaporate.

It is shocking. But also liberating. Shocking because they didn’t see it coming and it happened so fast. Liberating because we have a secret fascination with the drama of the mighty falling.

We are mesmerized by their loss of power, and tickled by our freedom from control, condescension and their self-importance. And we are surprised, at least for now, at how much we like our own writing and the writing of other uncredentialled citizens.

Of course this may not last long. Soon enough we will long for someone to actually cover a story and offer facts. But that will come with time in new forms.

In the meantime, it will be fun to see where all this freedom goes.

John is finishing a column. Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write john@jrpinc.com.

Madison Magazine - March 2009
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