Alex Wolfe | Staff Writer
This past Tuesday, President Ken Gormley hosted a discussion in the Power Center Ballroom to discuss the ever-present topic of technological discourse. The event, “Technology, Social Media and Civil Discourse,” consisted of two panels.
The first, titled “Your Brain and Technology: How Online Space Impacts Relationships, Empathy and Civility” and moderated by President Gormley, featured Sara Konrath of Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, Reynol Junco, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and Jeffrey Hall of the University of Kansas. Each presenter gave a 10-minute speech to introduce their ideas to the audience and then sat for a round of questions from Gormley.
The university president inquired in a series of questions about the impact social media and digital communication has upon our capacity for empathy, and the discussion evolved into a commentary about the future of social media. Each panelist made sure to address the dangers of social media and the harm it can cause, but they were mostly concerned with the social place of technology in our lives.
Hall in particular seemed to focus on the role which smartphones play in our lives. “The social norms haven’t been established to meet the times,” he said. “Society agreed to type emails very formally, similar to the form for writing letters, but we have no idea about how to collectively text. Is it ok to use emojis with someone you’ve only just met? Should conversations be formal with punctuation?”
Each panelist seemed to agree with what the others were saying, and the discussion was largely academic in form, as each speaker would offer new information for every question from their own research or the research of others.
The second panel, by contrast, was largely descriptive, rather than academic. Moderated by Beth Benson, publisher and vice president of Pittsburgh Magazine, “Modern Media & Civil Discourse: A View from the Trenches” consisted of KDKA-TV News Anchor and Legal Editor Julie Grant and Duquesne alumn Julian Routh, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette digital news reporter and the former editor-in-chief of the Duquesne Duke.
Benson’s discussion was geared toward interactions in social media forums themselves. Both Benson and Grant offered testimonies of their professional experiences using social media, but both emphasized the negative effects of their personal experiences as public figures on social media. Grant offered a catchy mnemonic, which she attributed to the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office: “You can’t replace cyberspace!”
For his part, Routh agreed with what both Benson and Grant were saying, but offered a political twist, sharing his stories covering the 2016 election for the Wall Street Journal. He said, “Before I, the reporter on the ground, could get a lead, it would have been already tweeted by thousands of people, perhaps including the president of the United States.”
At which point, Grant pulled out her pocket Constitution, and both Routh and Grant entered into a conversation about the dangerous nature of the evolving echo chamber that social media sites have become.
Routh said, “I think it’s pretty clear that sites like Facebook and Twitter present a person with what they want to see. It’s become socially acceptable to make fun of a particular political party online, which can give you an idea of how social media can distort our politics.”
Gormley ended the event with an allusion to a forum to discuss next year’s hot-button topic, and that hosting these types of events were one of his main goals as president of Duquesne University.