The Mushy Side of Social Media


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© Jack Cashill
Published in Ingramsonline.com - December 2013

Forget the on-line marketing. When it comes to bringing people closer together, few things can match the power—or the reach— of what the Internet hath wrought.

When I hear the chattering classes talk about social media, the conversation typically heads in one of two directions, marketing or mayhem. There is a third category, however, that appeals to our better angels and that, I believe, makes the social media work—more on this in a minute.

As to marketing, alas, not a minute by goes without some would-be guru telling his or her would-be clients how—through the wonders of social media—they can separate the clueless and insecure from their disposable income, their privacy, or both.

A century ago, these same people, then working through the wonders of the mail-order catalogue, were trying to persuade your great uncle Bert that Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound could cure his gout, grow hair on his bald spot, and ease his marital woes. Not much has changed.

As to mayhem, social media are used, we know, to muster unruly mobs on places like the Country Club Plaza, but they are also used to alert adults to the nature of those mobs, something the major media won’t do.

Writ large, I can count on my social-media friends to provide me with a daily dose of people doing horrible things, like mugging, bullying, or worse, twerking. I can count on other friends to complete the circle with revenge videos in which muggers get shot, bullies get beaten, and narcissistic twerkers fall over backward and catch on fire (in a non-life threatening way, of course).

It is not, however, the marketing or mayhem posts that inspire nearly 1.2 billion people, mostly adults, to use Facebook regularly—and billions more to use other social networks—but a third category of posts that does the trick, the underappreciated “mushy” ones.

The Power of Heart-Warming Experiences

Indeed, more people sign up for Facebook daily than they do for Obamacare, and they do so without a hint of coercion or even corporate persuasion. Ever see a Facebook ad? They do not sign up to see advertising click-throughs or videos of people jumping in front of subway trains. They sign up to have their hearts warmed.

The heartwarming posts come in two basic varieties: the personal and the viral. The personal are the ones you and your family gush over or at least “like.” The viral ones are those people talk about over the water cooler, real or virtual.

In the past few weeks, on the personal front, I’ve experienced a niece’s first Halloween outfit (a tiger), a cousin’s cheerleading championship, a new in-law baby with spiked hair, several remembrances of loved ones past, a 78-year-old uncle’s birthday, a friend’s recovery from cancer, and my own baby granddaughter’s emergence as a redhead.

On the cusp between viral and personal, comes Trick-Shot Titus, the two-year-old son of Wichita radio host, Joseph Ashby. A few months ago, Ashby, a Facebook friend, sent me a video of Titus shooting baskets and asked if I would help spread the word. When I watched the video, I was the 30th person to have seen it.

When I checked the YouTube count three days later, 3 million people had seen the video and Titus had already appeared on Good Morning America and the Today Show. The lad really is incredible.

Unlike in the broadcast media, no one in the social media tells you what video imagery you ought to be seeing. Videos go viral because thousands of people make the independent judgment that the videos ought to be seen.

The day I write this, for instance, I received and subsequently shared a six-minute video recounting the first year in the life of a baby named Ward Miles. What makes the video worth sharing is that the baby was born 3½ months premature and weighed a pound and a half at birth.

The video is wonderfully mushy, of course, but it also has an implicit political message that some of my more progressive friends and relatives would reject in any other format. I posted it with a soft-sell message, “Worth watching and contemplating.” Within minutes, a viewer had posted, “Should be required viewing in an ‘informed consent’ protocol before anyone can proceed to an abortion.” Exactly.

If you are looking for some other milestones in mushiness, let me recommend “Christian the Lion is Reunited With His Owners.” Two British guys release their pet lion to the wild and return years later for an emotional reunion. Tears flow.

No one can resist “29-Year-Old Woman Hears Herself for the First Time.” Born deaf, Sarah Churman receives a hearing implant, and tears flow.

“Sergeant Surprises Family at Football Game” is just one in an irresistible genre of surprise reunion videos. This one works particularly well because the family is so genuinely thrilled to see the old man return. Tears flow.

The big hit of the fall season, though, came out of an improbable place—San Francisco, the soulless, dead-eyed city (or so people thought) that served, without much of an emotional stretch, as the backdrop for the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“I’m thirty-six years old,” says the yuppie Brian in Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco-based Further Tales, “and I’ve never bred so much as a goldfish.” He is hardly unique. San Francisco has only 14 children under eighteen per 100 people, the lowest such figure in the nation for a major city.

On Nov. 17 of this year, San Franciscans had a chance to remind themselves why other people have children. Five-year-old Scott Miles has been suffering from leukemia. The City of San Francisco cooperated with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give Scott, a Batman aficionado, a day to remember. The organizers did the concept justice.

Through a deluge of social-media blasts, San Franciscans were alerted as to where the Batmobile, with Batkid in full crime-fighting mode, was about to subdue the Penguin, arrest the Riddler, or rescue a damsel in distress. They turned out in great numbers at every stop, some of them with signs urging on “Gotham’s Hero.”

Batkid Scott Miles had a blast. Tears flowed copiously, not only among the thousands who cheered on Batkid in the streets, but among the millions who followed his adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

Yes, we all have hearts, even in San Francisco—and not just the ones other people have left behind.

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