My Regular Internet Checkup

file0002054526820Almost twenty years ago, I received a phone call from a polite young man studying at the USC Center for the Digital Future at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He asked for my help with a project.

Yeah, I know. It always starts out that way. Then you end up on YouTube with a Kardashian.

But eager to lend a hand to educate the youth of America, and as a former advertising major sympathetic to those whose semester grades hinge on cold-calling people about their favorite brand of mayonnaise (I had to do this once), I fielded his questions.

This is the essence of what we discussed all those years ago: Yes, I have access to the Internet. No, we have just the one computer, the one phone line with a dial-up modem, and the many arguments about who is doing what on it when. Do I “know” anyone online that I’ve never met in person? One or two people, and it’s sort of intriguing, like a blind date that never happens.

Then the school sent me a check for ten bucks and asked if they could continue to keep tabs on me—I agreed. The concept of the study intrigued me, and I like getting an extra ten bucks from time to time. The questions have changed slightly over the two decades I’ve been playing guinea pig. I now fill out an online survey instead of answering a call, and the money goes right into my PayPal account, but the intent is the same: to measure the impact the Internet is having on people’s lives.

Here’s how it’s changed mine. In the past twenty years, Art Husband and I have accumulated more devices that can access the Internet. A cable modem and two Macs reduced the arguments. Gone are the daily newspapers and most of the print magazines; we listen to radio stations through our computers. We watch TV and read books on our tablets. Both of us working from home means many Internet hours logged.

I also have friends. Lots and lots of friends. Where previously I could have rattled off the names of my Web buds for the USC undergrads, the quantity of my online colleagues, friends, and acquaintances has grown from “a few” to “a couple dozen,” to “are you kidding me?”

It’s a pretty amazing thing, though. I love your support and knowledge and jokes and friendship; I love that any time of the day or night I can go online and “reach out and touch someone” anywhere on the planet. I’ve taken it a step further by getting away from my computer and meeting a few of those online friends face to face.

My regular Internet checkup makes me think about how my life is changing, good and bad, from staring into this little box that gives me a window on the world. Each year, there’s usually one question on the survey that gives me pause. This time it was about the validity of the information on the Internet. Which sources do I trust? Blogs, government, newspapers? How much of what I see would I consider reliable? Not as much as I used to think, apparently. And that’s kind of sad. The good news is that if you’re interested in parsing out the sources, you can get a decent enough cross section to arrive at something resembling accuracy. That takes work. And time. Which not everybody has or wants to commit to these days.

It will be interesting to see how I feel about this issue when the next survey rolls around.

What do you think? How much of what you read “out there” do you trust? Has the Internet changed your life for the better?

One Man’s Freedom Fighter Is Another Man’s Antisecrecy Group

Listen to the news sometime. I mean, really listen, beyond the sound bytes, hairstyles, and the cringe-worthy way some of them pronounce “often” and “inundated.” Or that one American network that thinks we’re so stupid, a world map graphic is now used to show where each news story is occurring, even those in large US cities. Try to catch the way anchors, correspondents, and political officials pronounce the names of countries. Take note of the adjectives used to describe potentially inflammatory individuals, situations, or groups. It’s really fascinating. Can you imagine the groupthink that went into those decisions? I see a bunch of suits in a room, bandying about various phrases, cringing in anticipation of the angry letters they might get if certain terms are used. It’s lead to some interesting tweaks of the English lexicon.

For instance, my Journalism 101 professor, who looked exactly like J. Jonah Jameson, said the word “try” is a big tip-off to media bias. As in, “The president tried to rally foreign leaders to get behind his peace agreement.” Meaning, “Our editorial slant is that we disapprove of the president and hope his flawed, imprudent agreement fails.”

But that’s old news. With a 24-hour news cycle, who has time for subtlety?

How newscasters and politicians pronounce the names of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries is also a clue. The late Peter Jennings, Canadian by birth, suddenly became Latino when he had to say “Nicaragua” or “Ecuador.” It’s silly, really, a politically correct nod to our neighbors to the south, whom I’m sure are lovely people, but probably wouldn’t mind if we pronounced their countries’ names with our American accents. Do you hear that on the BBC? I don’t think so. Listen now, as President Obama pronounces “Pakistan.” PAH-ki-stahn. Are you guessing that news outlets rooting for his failure probably doesn’t pronounce it that way?

Certain terms are also buzzwords pointing to editorial slant. Remember Ronald Reagan? (Google it, kids.) Remember his dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras? This band of fighters resisted the Sandinista government that took control after dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was overthrown in 1979. Taking a cue from the French Resistance in World War II, the contras were called “freedom fighters” by the CIA and the Reagan administration. The contras themselves preferred to be known as “commandos.” And I’m pretty sure the Sandinistas (and those on the American left who supported them) didn’t call the Contras “freedom fighters.” Probably more along the lines of “rebel scum.”

The US media had a little tussle with itself after 9/11, about the use of “terrorist,” an emotionally charged word that was often applied indiscriminately to refer to people who weren’t “actual” terrorists. This led to terms like “enemy combatant,” which the Obama Administration dissed in 2009.

And now, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has journalists scratching their heads again. Some outlets debated the use of “whistleblower,” and if Assange is truly thus. The New York Times now calls WikiLeaks an “antisecrecy group.” Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden call him a terrorist. So now, one man’s terrorist is another man’s antisecrecy advocate. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

What euphemisms have you heard rolling off the tongues of those on the news? How do you think we should pronounce Pakistan? Join the discussion!