Archives For Social Media

brandi-blackbear-magIn 1999 Brandi Blackbear was suspended twice from an Oklahoma middle school for allegedly practicing Wicca. According to reports, the school accused her of casting a magic spell that caused a teacher to become sick. In October 2000 the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against Union Public Schools with complaints of religious discrimination and a violation of due process rights. The case became known as the “The Union Witch Trial”.

In 2002 U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan ruled in favor of the school district stating that “Neither of Blackbear’s two suspensions in 1999 violated her constitutional rights…” Posted on freedomforum.org, the 2002 AP article adds:

Blackbear testified during a deposition that she is not, has never been, and has never wanted to be a Wiccan. The judge also said ‘Blackbear admitted that the defendants have not done anything to keep her from practicing any religion …’ (Reported 7-20-2002)

In December Tulsa World published a follow-up article reporting that all appeals and all fees had been dropped. The Blackbear family moved on.

However that was not the end of the road for Brandi’s story. By 2002 “The Union Witch Trial” had gained some notoriety through national media reports, such as People magazine and The Today Show. Over the next few years, Brandi’s story was cited in a variety of books and journals (e.g., Paganism: Contemporary Paganism: Minority Religions in a Majoritarian America by Carol Barner-Barry; Where to Park Your Broomstick: A Teen’s Guide to Witchcraft By Lauren Manoy.) Then in 2006 the Lifetime TV Network produced a movie called Not Like Everyone Else based on the case.

Still from Lifetime Original Movie "Not Like Everyone Else" (2006)

Still from Lifetime Original Movie “Not Like Everyone Else” (2006)

That should have been the end of the road. Yet here we are eight years later reporting on the case. Why has “The Union Witch Trial” suddenly become newsworthy again? The answer to that question lies not with Brandi, the fight for religious freedom or witchcraft but with the state of traditional news media within our digitally-dependent world.

Over this past week “The Union Witch Trial” resurfaced online as “breaking news.” That story was shared via Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, private blogs and other similar sites. While some users recognized the story’s age, many did not. The story’s currency was substantiated by professional news bloggers and trusted media outlets who had published the story with a 2014 postdate (e.g., Esquire Magazine’s Politics Blog, 97.9 WGRD in Grand Rapids MI, and WJXX (ABC) and WTLV (NBC) in Jacksonville Florida.)

At the root of the confusion is a single ABC news article titled “Student Expelled for Casting a Spell.” All of the recent shares and posts contain links that eventually lead to that one article. Now look at the article carefully. Its postdate has no year. In addition the story text is framed with dynamic web elements that display today’s news. It is very easy to mistake the “The Union Witch Trial” as current.

Why is the year missing? According to the page’s source code, the ABC story was originally posted Oct. 28, 2000, and then modified in 2006 – the year of Lifetime’s movie. While that tells us nothing concrete about the missing date, it does illustrate a trend in Internet news reporting.

In the old system, news agencies relied on subscriptions, purchases, or ratings to garner advertising dollars. In the current system, they rely on likes, shares, and tweets all of which increase site traffic. Greater site traffic equates to greater advertising revenue.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's DBduo Photography

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s DBduo Photography

In the old system, you bought the paper to read it. You tuned in at 5, 6 or 11 p.m. to watch the News. Or, if you had cable, you watched CNN. The choices were limited and the actions were deliberate. Media outlets used content quality to build a reputation in order to entice consumers into making that conscious decision to consume.

Now, the barriers to consumption are gone. News is fast, free and all over the Internet. While reputation does still help, reader loyalty, no longer bound by dollars, is quickly fading. Therefore modern news agencies have the enormous, daily burden of filling their digital pages with attractive, relevant, click-producing content.  What is trending?  What has “gone viral?”

The news media’s extreme focus on their digital presence is highlighted in a recent Mashable article about The Record breaking the “Bridgegate” story. Journalist Jason Abbruzzese neatly describes how being the first-to-report affects site traffic. He then adds that in today’s news industry “Scoops can be followed [by other news sources] in hours or minutes instead of days, limiting their impact on a media outlet’s income.” As a result speed and quantity have become paramount.

Trending topics and viral social media stories are extremely valuable to these news outlets. This pre-packaged popular content provides guaranteed traffic generators no matter who got the scoop. In a December 2013 New York Times article entitled “If the Story is Viral, Truth May Be Taking a Beating,” reporters illustrate this point with a quote from Jonathan Benton of Neiman Journalism Lab:

This is journalism as an act of pointing — ‘Look over here, this is interesting’ … uncertainty about a story’s veracity is unlikely, in most cases, to keep an editor from posting it.

Content has taken a back-seat to measured popularity. In an essay for Esquire.com, Luke O’Neil, reporter and blogger, wrote: “The mistakes, and the falsehoods, and the hoaxes are a big part of a business plan driven by the belief that big traffic absolves all sins.” In the same essay, O’Neill sites the above New York Times article in which Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post says,

If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views. That’s a problem. The incentives are all wrong.

The Brandi Blackbear case proves their points. Whether or not the missing year was intentional or a not, the error can only benefit ABC.com. Without that 2000 postdate and wedged into a dynamic framework, “the Union Witch Trial” article has transformed into a phantom story that reappears when someone accidentally stumbles upon it.

Oklahoma State Capitol Building (Photo Courtesy of Daniel Mayer)

Oklahoma State Capitol Building (Photo Courtesy of Daniel Mayer)

Currently Oklahoma and the Occult are trending subjects due to the Satanic Temple’s unveiling of their statue design for the Oklahoma Capitol grounds. In searching that subject, readers may have stumbled upon the ABC article about Brandi. Mistaking it for current, they shared it. The rest is history.

As noted by Grim, there is no incentive for ABC to correct the error. In fact, the Jacksonville News Affiliate was alerted to the date error by email and through a variety of forum comments. However the station has not corrected the error. Why would it? Its news aggregator presented the story as socially viral. That equates to increased site views – whether or not the date is wrong. In fact the error may increase views. Note that we’ve created two links to the site just with this post.

Unfortunately “The Union Witch Story” is an excellent candidate for the modern news distribution model. As Beth Winegarner suggested in an 2012 article, for “reporters [who] are eager to grab readers’ attention, it’s tempting to include an occult hook when there is one.” The “Union Witch Trial” includes that hook and more:  children, civil rights, religion in schools and Native Americans. It’s the perfect news story.  In fact, this wasn’t the first time that the “The Union Witch Trial” has been breaking news (2000, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2013- 2014) and it won’t be the last as long as the ABC article remains undated.

Where does that leave the readers in all of this?  First there are many quality news sites that rely on original, meaningful news content. There are many journalists who still check facts three times and go directly to the source. Not all errors are intentional or ignored for the sake of site analytics. Not everyone serves that new media paradigm.

However, it is difficult to negotiate those waters and find the quality work. To do so, readers must slow down long enough to question the text and photos. Check the dates, the authors and the associated links. If the story or photo is too good to be true, it just might be.

After publishing an SEO-optimized post about a great new pin, I tweeted the URL which auto-shared to my fan-page status update. If you don’t mind, could you go and +1 it?

Did you get that? Some of it?  If you are social media junkie, it made perfect sense and you are probably about to head over the Google+.  If not, you might be drowning in the social media frenzy that has taken over the internet.

Desk

Photo Courtesy Flickr’s caribb

Given my background, I frequently get asked questions about social media.  “Why should I use it?” or “How can it help my organization?”  “Which sites should I be on?” and “Is Facebook really a covert CIA organization plotting to replace humanity with cyborg intelligence?” While I can’t answer that final question, I thought I’d spend some time responding to the others as they relate specifically to the Pagan community.

The first and most obvious question is “What is social media?”  According to business marketing experts, Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein:

“..a group of Internet-based applications that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (International Associate of Exhibits and Events

In simple terms, social media is a virtual arena where you, the user, can see and be seen?  Better yet, hear and be heard.  No, that doesn’t work either.  Let’s try this.  It is the modern village festival, the town square, the party line, Usenet, the chat room, and even the text-based MUCKS (multi-user-chat-kingdoms).

facebook logoAs of today, what are the most popular social media sites?  First, we have the behemoth known as Facebook with 61% of worldwide social media market share.  In distant second, we find Twitter, Pinterest and StumbleUpon. To make the on-line party more titillating, there are social media adds-on such as the ever-popular YouTube, Instagram, Flickr, Four Square and others.  For those wondering, MySpace, a victim of Facebook’s world domination, was recently re-launched by its new celebrity owner, Justin Timberlake, and is trying to make a glamorous comeback.

Oh yea, and there is also Google+.

Alongside the A-listers, countless special-interest social media sites have appeared on the scene.  Whether you’re a scientist or reader, a cat lover or environmentalist, there’s a second-tier site just for you.  Pagans are no exception.  Sites such as Wiccan Together, Witchbook, and Paganspace are exclusively dedicated to the “magick” of social networking.

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In fact, for some Pagans, these dedicated sites are more than workplace distractions.  They provide a much-needed spiritual community when a real one is not available.  Not everyone lives in Pagan-rich areas complete with festivals, metaphysical stores, and private groups.  Additionally, not everyone is able to be openly Pagan.  Sites like Witchbook and Paganspace are the doorways to like-minded individuals.

Admittedly, I have never used any of the Pagan-dedicated sites.  I simply don’t have time, which brings me to the next question, “Which ones should I use?” The answer for individuals is very different from the answer for organizations and businesses.

twitter logo 2For the individual, the choice is simple.  Pick a few sites that cater to your interests and have fun.  If you love visuals, crafts, and recipes, use Pinterest. If you need a business network, use LInkedIn.  If you prefer to succinctly spew forth your opinions, try microblogging on Twitter.   If you like Justin Timberlake, open a MySpace account.

For organizations, businesses or artisans, the choice becomes a bit more complicated, whether your endeavor is Pagan-based or not.  Without getting into the nitty gritty of social media marketing, I suggest that you answer these five key questions before making any social media plunge:

  1. What is my product or service?
  2. What is my ultimate goal?
  3. Who is my target audience?
  4. Which platforms are they using?
  5. What is my budget?

Once these questions are answered, an effective, stream-lined, integrated social media marketing strategy can be firmly enacted to give your organization or business a solid digital presence.

Now, this all sounds so digitally glorious but there are some major pitfalls.   For businesses and organizations, the biggest hurdle stems from the misconception that a big following equates to a desired return, financial or otherwise.  Just because someone liked your Facebook fan page, doesn’t guarantee that he or she will ever buy one of your hand-crafted ritual robes.

Unfortunately, that’s the nature of social media.  “Likes” and “Follows” are the proverbial carrot in front of the horse.  They just dangle there in front of marketers, enticing them to keep playing the social media game.

Covenant of the Goddess

Covenant of the Goddess

Regardless, all business and organizations should have a social media presence.  For Pagan entities, a strong presence can aid the quest for social legitimacy while providing a doorway allowing the public access to good information.  Perhaps more importantly, social media can bridge the gap between the generations by connecting older, traditional organizations like Covenant of the Goddess and Circle Sanctuary, to the younger, tech-savvy generations.  Social media could be the broomstick that takes Paganism into the future.

However, there are bigger concerns, legal and sociological, that loom over the entire social media experience.   Who has a right to censor your feeds?  When does social media become public media?  Are you living your real-life just to have something good to post?  And, finally and most importantly, as humans, are we facing a possible disintegration of real-world social skills?

The time we spend sharing, following, and liking takes away from sharing time with friends, following dreams and liking new experiences.  While social media does help build connections in ways that weren’t previously possible, we must not allow it to overtake real life.  That is especially true for Pagans whose spirituality is tied so strongly to the natural world.

SunriseYou can’t watch a sunset on Twitter.  You can’t feel the full moon rise on Youtube.  You can’t hear a friend’s rhythmic drumming during a cold Solstice Eve on Pinterest.  We still need our live seasonal festivals.  We still need brick-and-mortar community centers and energy filled circles. No doubt that social media plays an important and useful role in our lives but it must be intertwined with live experience – capturing it, sharing it but never replacing it.

(Now feel free to click the buttons below to like this, share this, pin this and, while you’re at it, don’t forget the +1)

 

Of the many small occult-oriented publishers Scarlet Imprint is probably one of the most acclaimed, and also one of the most outspoken. Over the years they have taken very public stances on everything from matters  political to piracy; at the same time they have published well-received poetry collections and in-depth thoughtful meditations by authors like John Michael Greer. However, while Scarlet Imprint recently branched out into the digital realm in regards to publishing, it doesn’t seem they have found their experiences in the realm of social media as enriching, and they’ve publicly announced their withdrawal from Facebook.

scarlet imprint leaving

“Magicians should be asking themselves very serious questions about how they relate to technology. We engage in this self-interrogation on a regular basis and have come to the decision to leave facebook, the maw that rapaciously devours online traffic, a memetic infestation which trivialises the numinous and significantly alters behaviour patterns for the worse. Facebook in particular is choking under the weight of content, and awaits the same inexorable fate as myspace before it and no doubt diaspora next. 

As we have previously stated, without Scarlet Imprint we would choose not to have any personal online profile at all. As such we have a duty to Her, the daemons, spirits and our authors to get the work out for the serious participants in the occult community. We will continue to maintain an online presence, as a necessary evil. Our friends are scattered like stars, and online has been essential for us to make these connections. We are fortunate to say that many of the best practitioners we know have no online profile, and would suggest that those who are most vocal online should perhaps have their claims taken with a pinch of salt.”

Scarlet Imprint’s co-publisher Peter Grey goes on to question whether the Internet is making us dumber (an idea that has found some popularity in recent years) and suggests that our magical (and I assume mundane) selves would be enriched by unplugging from it.

“We would suggest that your practice would benefit if you get the hell out of it, or at least minimise your exposure to the cognitive load. This is what we attempt to do, whilst still selling enough books to survive, and making sure that the right people come across our work.”

Perhaps not un-coincidentally this move by Scarlet Imprint comes during something of a mini-revolt by small businesses and brands voiced by the alternative media outlet Dangerous Minds. In a post entitled “Facebook: I Want My Friends Back,” Richard Metzger slams the social media giant for breaking the service in a cheap attempt to generate revenue, destroying the small but significant audiences many smaller brands and artists have built at the service.

Zuck background22

“Summing up, Facebook has taken a pee in their own pool from quite a lofty height, turning vast armies of “influentials” against the company, people who are now making plans—born of necessity—to bolt from that pool and to stop putting any effort there. Furthermore, Facebook’s greedy grab will have the knock-on effect of causing many blogs to simply throw in the towel, diminishing Facebook’s own business ecosystem and Facebook’s value to its own users to the point where only Axe Deodorant, Taco Bell and Nike will be showing up in your Facebook newsfeed, which after all, is pretty much the sole point of Facebook in the first place! They’ve deliberately broken their own product’s biggest selling point. Whose idea was that?”

The sentiments expressed by Metzger were echoed by Anne Newkirk Niven, publisher of Pagan-oriented magazines like Witches & Pagans and Sage Woman.

ann facebook

Which makes me wonder: will Scarlet Imprint’s move inspire occult and Pagan businesses and brands increasingly frustrated by the recent changes laid out by Dangerous Minds? Will a confluence of dissatisfactions spark a trend toward exodus? While I can’t see bigger Pagan brands like Llewellyn Worldwide ever leaving Facebook, it’s very possible that niche and mid-size ones might start looking into viable alternatives. What that viable alternative might be is an open question as Google+ and other services haven’t seemed to gain much traction against the Facebook juggernaut. Who knows, maybe the second coming of MySpace will change everything? In the meantime, I wish Scarlet Imprint luck in their Facebook-less future.