The Fifth Estate
Like many of you before social networking sites, I probably lived in a vacuum. My thoughts were my own, and if I wanted to know what other people were thinking on any given topic, as a member of the CBS Network affiliate “press corps,” I would ask. The answers came back in the form of what we in the media called MOS (Man on the street), and we, The Fourth Estate, as we were affectionately known, thought the unscientific poll was the best way to share with the world what our neighbors were thinking and feeling.
And then came Y2K.
At the time, we thought the Y2K bug would change life as we knew it. Programmers alleged that when the date rolled over to 01-01-00, computers everywhere wouldn’t understand the date as 2000 but rather 1900, and the rollover would wipe the computer’s memory.
Remember how computer programmers worldwide worked feverishly to fix “the bug” to ensure all our data would remain safe. We thought planes would drop out of the sky, trains would come to a screeching halt, and traffic lights would go haywire. Since many of us weren’t born before 1900, we shudder at the thought that we all believed we would cease to exist.
Well, 2-0-0-0-oops-out-of-time came and went without a blip. It was safe to turn on the computer again.
But was it really “Safe?”
“Safe” was subjective, at least if you were a member of mainstream media, because when we did turn on our PCs, slowly but surely, social message boards such as Corona Productions-Coming Attractions for movie geeks, BlackVoices.com for people of color, Xanga.com which seemed to be the meeting place for Asians became the gathering place to exchange ideas, long-held beliefs, news, and opinions.
The Y2K bug did indeed occur, but it came as a virus that caused epidemic levels of not what we originally feared: the loss of information but instead widespread awareness. The world became smaller, segregated not by ethnic groups, age, religion, or even language but rather by ideology. Screen names and avatars replaced photos, and with our new online persona, we found people who believed in what we believed and formed coalitions.
Instead of our knowledge base shrinking, these early social networking sites allowed our knowledge base to expand. If we wanted to participate in these online social networks that were springing up, if we wanted “to be cool” in yet another world, we were forced to evaluate our belief system. We couldn’t fake our long-held beliefs online because our only way of communicating was through our words. The way we structured our sentences told our story…The way our story read determined our “group.”
Harsh? Yes and No.
Online forums are open to everyone, and it is possible to “Get in, where you fit in,” and no one is relegated to any one group for long. As we’ve realized in the social networking world, “our aptitude and attitude determines our altitude.” As a result of our inherent need to be accepted, for the second time in as many millennia, we’ve learned the earth again is not flat and the sun does not revolve around the earth.
Shattering ignorance and exploding myths allow us to emerge from the darkness to stand on equal footing. I can’t help but think, is this the dream Dr. King envisioned? Maybe? Although Social Networking is still in its infancy, many of us are not quite sure what to do with this newfound knowledge and transfer of thought…
We no longer need the Fourth Estate to tell us what is happening in the world or even in our own backyard. In this first decade of the new millennium, we have used Social Networking as a cyber “town hall”; we’ve used it to elect a President who promised us to change. We have used Social Networking sites to mourn the loss of icons, heroes, and even people we’ve never known until they passed tragically.
At the dawn of a new decade 01-01-10, Social Networking can now take its rightful place as The Fifth Estate. No one speaks for us; we are now our own voice. As I write this tonight, I wonder – will anyone listen to us tomorrow?
2009 (c) MH