Think Mark Twain would have used social media?

By | September 26, 2016

Mark Twain on Discovery

See my presentation “How Writers Can Leverage Social Media.” Quote from Image via AP.

For writers, social media is both a tool and a trap. If social media had existed when Mark Twain was publishing, think the American author and humorist would have used it?

The writer also known as Samuel Clemens put a 100-year embargo on his autobiography. Why? He was known to be fiercely protective of his reputation. He did not want the details of his private life to damage his reputation, to negatively influence the readers of his books, or to open up his family to attack. One of the pitfalls of social media is its blurring of the personal and the professional.

If Mr. Clemens had social media, he might have used it judiciously. He prized his privacy. It is one reason why he used a variety of pen names, the most famous being Mark Twain.

But the endorphin rush of likes, follows and compliments that social media can bring might have tempted Twain to jump into the Twitter and Facebook fray.

“Compliments make me vain and when I am vain, I am insolent and overbearing. It is a pity, too, because I love compliments. I love them even when they are not so.
My child, I can live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing else to eat.”
— Mark Twain, Letter to Gertrude Natkin, March 2, 1906

No doubt Twain would have hated all the mean-spirited criticism, and the rampant copyright infringement.

“I like criticism, but it must be my way.”
–Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Autobiography, 2010

Because Mr. Clemens was so opinionated and freely wrote under a pseudonym, it is not unfathomable to imagine him engaging in some anonymous online trolling. I mean, Twain was a master at one-liners and zingers.

“Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take the pen and put them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are wasted because I can’t print the results.” –Mark Twain, “The Privilege of the Grave,” published in Who is Mark Twain?

If you are trying to make your mark on the modern world as a writer, I do not recommend you partake in anonymous online trolling. But there are plenty of other things writers can do with social media for discovery, (distraction) and distribution. This presentation, How Writers Can Leverage Social Media is from a workshop I led at the Mark Twain House & Museum‘s 5th Annual Writers Weekend in Hartford, Connecticut on September 24, 2016.

Data visualizations: Asthma rates in Connecticut

By | September 16, 2016

Using the visualization software program Tableau Public and data sets from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, I created two data visualizations about asthma rates in Connecticut for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team.


Reading too many comments

By | July 29, 2016


I’ve spent two mind-numbing weeks watching the national political conventions.

The online comments surrounding them? Fear, loathing, anger, hype, snark.

So much polarization. All mistrust and motivated reasoning. Just take a glimpse at WSJ’s Blue Feed, Red Feed for realtime examples.

“Live chat” comments on YouTube live streams of the #RNCinCLE and #DemsinPhilly conventions were undoubtedly the worst I encountered.

I need to detox.

Consequence-free speech

By | July 28, 2016

anonymous online speech

“My mood, I say, was one of exaltation. I felt as a seeing man might do, with padded feet and noiseless clothes, in a city of the blind. I experienced a wild impulse to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people’s hats astray, and generally revel in my extraordinary advantage.” H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, 1897Chapter 21.

Anonymous online comments are often audacious, as in “having a confident and daring quality that is often seen as shocking or rude.”

Is how we talk about difficult topics online having an influence how civilly we treat/talk to each other offline? In this current political election cycle, it seems like civility is regressing online and off.

Is online anonymity the foundation of incivility? I’m not convinced. Real name policies haven’t cured the cancer of incivility in most online comment forums. I find Facebook comments — most of which reveal people’s actual names, as well as their photos, workplace and familial connections — to be nastier and meaner than the pseudonym-powered comments on most news websites.

Does the credibility of a comment at the bottom of a news story depend on whether or not it is signed? I’m not convinced of that either. Your average citizen commenter – whether it’s Joe Jones from Tampa or Sally Smith from Stamford – won’t be known to the mass media audience anyway, so their “credibility” doesn’t come from their name.

Like NBC”s “The Voice,” we don’t need to know commenters names, hometowns or what they look like to judge whether the ideas/opinions they post are worthwhile. We judge credibility after reading what they say.

Is the comment smart? Emotional? Snarky? Provocative? Condescending? Vulgar? Is it filled with typos and grammatical errors? Does it challenge our perspective or present some new information? Is it incendiary? Hateful?

If the comment is signed by a well-known person – a celebrity or public figure – then the audience may prejudge the comment based by that person’s existing reputation.

If an ordinary commenter’s title or location information is posted with the comment, that person’s professional expertise or where they are from may influence their credibility. Silly or offensive avatars and pseudonyms can undermine credibility, too.

Facebook commenting threads can show a user’s self-disclosed location and/or title, which supplies the audience with useful credibility signals. But it is not uncommon for that self-disclosed information to be used by dissenting commenters with opposing agendas as ammunition to attack (such as when I saw a self-described clergyman post a hateful comment on a USAToday politics story and then get pummeled with insults from the crowd pointing out his hypocrisy.)

Real name policies on online forums, however, do make the threat of “real life” offline consequences more of a possibility, and may therefore constrain some online commenters from releasing a tirade, or encourage others to be more thoughtful before posting. In forcing online commenters to attach their real names and their professional/community reputations to comments posted in the public sphere, online commenters own their opinions and any impact/fallout as a result of broadcasting their ideas. Like anything posted on the Internet publicly, online comments are searchable and archived. Real name ownership adds a level of societal consequences, whereas unsigned comments are essentially consequence-free.

How dangerous is consequence-free speech?

Highlights from #ASJA2016

By | May 22, 2016

Talking about Trends in Workplace Communication Technology

By | May 3, 2016


The Hartford Business Journal publisher Joe Zwiebel invited me to participate in a “power breakfast” panel discussion on April 27 about Technology in the Work Place: What’s New and What’s Coming. Below is a summary of my remarks:

Q. How is technology changing your industry?

When it comes to the business of journalism, there are two forces affecting the future of news: communication technology and audience habits.

The smartphones we carry around and use to continually check email/social networks/weather/sports scores means how we access news and information on a daily basis has shifted away from traditional media, especially newspapers.

The increase in mobile and social media use has journalists adjusting how they gather, produce and distribute news stories — so that the audience will find them and pay attention to them. Read more »

What journalists should realize about social media: A poem, of sorts

By | April 26, 2016

What is social media?

What is social media?

It’s a billboard
a live broadcast channel
an archive
and a library.

It’s also a conversation. Unscripted and unpredictable.

A customer service feedback line
and a crowd-sourcing tool.

It’s a polling center
a debate arena
an angry mob
and an echo chamber.

Social media is a snark machine.

It offers publishing tools for anyone
citizen journalist
accidental journalist
professional journalist.

It favors emotion over reason.

It is an instrument of activism
and a weapon of harassment.

It is a rallying cry
and a community organizer.

A branding agent
and a reputation builder.

It is a relationship manager
and a public shaming device.

Social media is
an audience engagement opportunity
and a collaboration platform.

Powerful in reach
yet limiting in form.

Because of social media
we can have common conversations
on a massive scale.

The sense of empowerment
that social media generates
intensifies the news cycle.

Love or hate social media
it’s not going away.

Social shares help us
measure impact
of our works of journalism.

Smart journalists recognize
social media’s limitations
and its possibilities.

It is our challenge
to get our messages heard
in a digital landscape
of unlimited content

yet limited time
and attention.

This poem, of sorts, was written for the 50th anniversary of the University of Connecticut Journalism Department and presented during a panel discussion about the future of journalism at UConn’s Konover Auditorium in Storrs, Connecticut on April 16, 2016.

Social media is often the antithesis of a safe space

By | February 5, 2016

chronicle of higher education

Back in mid-November 2015, I attended the Association of Opinion Journalists Minority Writers Seminar on a fellowship.

During the four day workshop at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, I banged out a rough personal essay about what happened the first time I assigned my journalism students to use Twitter. It was a commentary piece I’d been itching to write since I began working full time as a journalism professor, but I could never quite find the timely news hook or time to write it.

Then the “safe spaces” on campus battle heated up during Concerned Student 1950 protests at Mizzou in October 2015. I realized there aren’t safe spaces on social media. Could vicarious trauma from social media’s hostile environment be part of the reason why students want “safe spaces” in real life?

How I got the essay published: I first pitched it to the New York Times opinion section at the end of November (no response). I rewrote some of it and pitched Washington Post opinion (no response). My third pitch to the Chronicle of Higher Education and complete rewrite – from top to bottom – finally met with success. Here’s the article “Yes, Campuses Should be Safe Spaces — For Debate,” published in the February 5, 2016 issue:

Many thanks to the folks at the AOJ Minority Writers Seminar who motivated me to write the essay.

Highlights from 2015 AOJ Minority Writers Seminar

By | November 29, 2015

Association of Opinion Journalists Minority Writers Seminar participants at the Poynter Institute in St. Peterburg, FL. I'm the one in blue in the middle. (Photo courtesy of AOJ)

Photo courtesy of AOJ

Association of Opinion Journalists hosted a Minority Writers Seminar on Nov. 12-17, 2015 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. The diverse group of participants, myself included, hailed from all over the country and included freelance writers, full-time news reporters, editorial writers, academics and college students. I’m the one in blue in the middle of the second row.

Highlights included:

  • Learning how a newspaper editorial is assembled through deliberation and consensus, and why informed opinion and reasoned debate is so important to our democracy.
  • Hearing how sometimes editorial writers must craft an editorial arguing a position with which they they personally disagree.
  • Writing a newspaper editorial on deadline, after deliberating with four other editorial writers and reaching consensus on a position.
  • Writing a personal essay/column on deadline. (Update January 31, 2016: Here’s my revised/published essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)
  • Recalling and sharing the personal essay I wrote when I was 25 years old about “Growing Up In America As Other: When You’re Not Quite Minority Enough”
  • Networking, camaraderie, and being inspired by the knowledge, skills, diversity, experiences and humanity of my fellow attendees and instructors.
  • Drinking too much coffee on the first full day. Oh, #overcaffeinated. There’s a good reason I only drink decaf.
  • Eating tapas with new friends.
  • #PrayforParis.
  • Attending a forum with David Axelrod, political consultant and former senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
  • Wandering through the trippy Salvador Dali museum.

This is the editorial I wrote on deadline during the seminar about the situation in Syria. It was a practical learning exercise, one that helped renew my confidence in my deadline-writing abilities.

As the United States’ entanglement in Syria and Iraq deepens and the region’s humanitarian crisis reaches epic proportions, members of Congress must end their inaction and debate a war authorization as quickly as possible.

No one wants the loss of American military lives in another open-ended conflict on foreign soil. But Congress has deferred all decision-making related to the conflict in Syria to President Barack Obama, while blaming his policies as weak, unreliable, nonsense and lacking a “larger coherent strategy.”

In October, Obama authorized the deployment of 50 U.S. special operations soldiers in Northern Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said recently that more American troops could “absolutely” be sent to Syria to fight ISIS, the militant Islamist group that now controls broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.

If members of Congress, especially the ones running for commander-in-chief in 2016, don’t agree with Obama’s unilateral decisions, then they should come up with their own alternative plan. That’s their job.

Obama’s actions in the region have relied on a 13-year-old congressional authorization that gave President George W. Bush power to wage war on Al-Qaida and invade Iraq. In February, Congress refused to debate a proposal submitted by the Obama administration asking for a 3-year authorization to fight the Islamic State unrestricted by national borders.

Members of Congress need to do more than talk tough in the press against extremism and Obama. At the very least, they should publicly debate their own strategy addressing the intertwined challenges of ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

The time for lawmakers act is now. The number of deaths in Syria grows daily. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the 4-½ years since the Syrian civil war started. Islamic State terrorists are also believed to have slaughtered another 30,000 people.

By December 2015, an estimated 4.7 million people will have fled the region, putting a tremendous burden on our allies in the Middle East and Europe.

Congress can no longer sit idly by criticizing the policies of the President Obama, while inaction continues. Stakes are too high.


To Comment or Not To Comment

By | October 7, 2015

Source: EFF Senior Designer Hugh D'Andrade to illustrate EFF's work against patent trolls. Via CC.

We all have the ability to be a comment troll. (Image by D’Andrade via CC)

I spend a lot of my time mulling over ways for journalists to elevate online discourse on news stories. Below is a presentation I gave at the 2015 Excellence in Journalism conference in Orlando, FL on September 18. Joining me was Talia Stroud of the Engaging News Project.

My prepared script for “To Comment or Not To Comment” can be found below the presentation.

To Comment Or Not To Comment from Marie K. Shanahan

Hello, everyone. My name is Marie Shanahan and I teach digital journalism at the University of Connecticut.

Before I got my current job as a journalism professor, I worked for 12 years as an online editor at The Hartford Courant- America’s Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper.

And I can tell you the exact day when my interest in studying online commenting was born: June 20, 2008. It was a Friday, and shortly after the morning news meeting a big crowd showed up on the doorstep of the Courant to protest…our online comment sections.

Community activists and city employees, led by Hartford’s mayor, demanded that as a corporate citizen in the community, the Courant should stop providing a “platform for hate and racist material.”

The accusation was mortifying to me, but it was deserved. At the time, trolls had overrun the Courant’s unmonitored anonymous comment boards. Awful dialogue was posted the bottom of every news story on our website. Those comments gave me headaches.

But moderating them was not my responsibility, not the newsroom’s responsibility. That space belonged to the readers. We journalists had too many other more important things to do.

The Courant’s publisher at the time responded to the protest with a statement saying the comment sections were a reflection of “a free society working at its best and at its worst.” And that the comment boards were still valuable, if imperfect.

The protesters were right, and our publisher was right.

A journalistic conundrum, indeed.

The commenting climate overall hasn’t improved much since 2008. There’s just more places and more people leaving comments.

Toxic online commentary so pervasive it’s become a pop culture joke.

Jimmy Kimmel has celebrities reading “mean tweets” about themselves.

HBO‘s The Newsroom had fictional anchor Will McAvoy on a “mission to civilize” his network’s online commenters.

And just last month (August 2015) The E! network launched a new Friday night show that makes jokes out of guess what? Online comments.

As human beings, we are hardwired to communicate. We value freedom of expression as a universal right. We have lots of opinions and experiences to share. The news — the work of journalists — starts conversations.

None of that is new.

What the internet does, though, is enable people to be MORE of what they already ARE. So if I like to bloviate in real life, I’m going to take advantage of digital communication spaces to do the same.

Humans are also subversive, and opportunistic, and self serving. If there is a flaw in a system, we tend to find a way to exploit it.

Here’s what happens when we journalists don’t tend to our online conversation spaces:

Lord of the Flies.

The feral middle school boy inside of some (many?) of us takes over.

Toxicity left unchecked leads to bullying, flaming, doxxing, very unpleasant online spaces.

Speech acts different online than it does in person or in print. You can find posts out of context. Speech can be copied and shared instantly to huge numbers of people.

Online discourse can happen in real time, like on Twitter, but posts can also linger indefinitely in easily searchable archives.

And nasty comments, well, those ones fester.

We don’t like that. The aggressive tone of online commenting has caused a serious problem in online discourse: participation inequality.

Researchers are finding that men dominate online commenting. A lot of women are not posting comments online because they don’t feel comfortable or safe.

Participation inequality isn’t good for journalism, and it isn’t good for our modern democracy.


Is the ability to be anonymous online the problem?

Anonymity certainly does enable some bad actors, but as news organizations have forced people to register, use real names, login using a Facebook account, it hasn’t solved the incivility problem.

Whether you want people to use real names or not…

…”civility is emotional maturity.”

Comments and commenters still need to graduate from middle school.

To do that, I think they need a teacher in the classroom.

I’ll argue that teacher should be us –- the journalists.

Professional journalists make good moderators, based our training, our commitment to open-minded inquiry and accuracy, and our code of ethics.

We also need better comment boxes.

The structure of most existing online news commenting platforms enables too many bad actors.

The comment systems on a lot of news sites don’t work well on mobile devices either, which is what most of us use to communicate today.

Recognizing the #FAIL, lots of news organizations in the past year have ditched their on-site commenting systems and are now relying completely on social media platforms for conversations with the audience.

That makes some sense to me. More and more traffic to news stories comes from social.

Audiences are already on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and leaving comments on their friends’ vacation pictures.

But social isn’t perfect either. Read some comments on YouTube.

“YouTube promises more measures to tame its comment trolls”-

Which is why no matter where a news organization or a journalist decides to host conversations about the news stories we’re producing, a journalist, ideally, needs to be there, too, guiding that debate with journalistic prowess to make it intelligent, fair, accurate, and valuable.

So what do journalists really want in our comment sections?

– We want to be enlightened and entertained. I read comments on Deadspin. Sometimes they are really funny.

– We prefer comments that actually address the topic of the story.

– We favor informed opinions and a variety of perspectives.

– Comments can disagree, and disagree strongly, but they must treat others ideas’ with respect.

It’s all the same stuff we look for when we’re reporting a news story.

– We also like audience contributions that give us new information, or new sources for a potential follow up story. We like finding fresh new voices for op-ed contributions.

Contributions from the audience have value when they meet some standards.

If we’re prompting a discussion by posting a story and promoting it on social media, yet not setting the tone/rules for the discussion, at least initially, the discourse isn’t going to elevate itself.

That’s why journalists are picked to moderate presidential debates.

My last bullet: Community.

Comments sections, when welcoming, can form communities. Community organizing is democracy in action.

Should there be a discussion hosted on every story?

I think not.

Some stories are better suited for debate than others.

Why can’t more news organizations choose thoughtfully which stories to host debate on, exercising the same type of news judgment we use for the front page or when deciding our broadcast line-up.

– Is this the right topic?

– Does the story feature provocative sources or is it likely to draw attention from provocateurs?

– Am I going to host my discussion on the story on my news site, or on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit? Different platforms attract different people. They are also structured differently. Conversations in one place may be easier to moderate than others.

– Can I commit to moderating or at least monitoring the conversation in all the places I post the story? I think we have an ethical responsibility to do that.

Plus what’s posted by us in those places affects our reputation. If I can’t pay attention to the debate I started, why am I sharing the story in the first place?

– What if the story attracts hundreds OR thousands of comments? How can I be smart about sorting the chaos?

Can I aggregate a really good discussion thread into a new story? Can I highlight the best comments in another story? Can I label and explain the various sides of the argument presented?

– ROI: Measure the return on my journalistic investment of time, energy in hosting a forum. Think of value in terms of new story ideas generated for me, a la “comment reporting,” or the readers/viewers coming back to my news site again and again because they value the discussion spaces and what they learn, too.

There’s also this idea that the new comment section for journalists should be QUESTIONS. Ask the audience what they want to do know more about and why. Use that as a starting point for stories and then cycle back to the audience.

If you or your news organization can’t commit to watering and weeding the garden, then don’t bother planting any seeds.

Focusing discussion early on often drastically reduces the need for moderation later.

We can use moderation and comments to “keep the record straight” when it is being challenged.

Knowing the internet is an endless debate, knowing there will be bad actors, let’s think strategically about the worst case scenario.

One worst case scenario: No comments.

Second worst case scenario: Too many comments.

What if the conversation about my news story goes viral and takes on a life of its own? This is what happened to the folks at the podcast ‘Serial.’ On Reddit, the ‘Serial’ discussion attracted 44,000+ active commenters. How can you handle comments/uphold journalism ethics/keep the record straight on a platform you don’t control?

The Denver Post is a news organization that allows open commenting on all its stories. It also posts stories on Facebook and Instagram. The newsroom moderates all comments flagged by users.

Social Media Editor Sara Grant told me that the Post know its audience well enough to know which story topics will draw actual comments, not just likes or shares.

Stories about immigration, police violence, politics, and death penalty get “many many comments,” she said.

Sara said the Denver Post does not turn off comment streams when that happens. “We just keep a close eye on the flagged comment queue.”

The guidelines they use for on-site comments are put into practice on Facebook and Instagram, too.

No personal attacks, no off topic comments, libel, threats, or profanity.

The Denver Post had tons of comments recently in its coverage of the Aurora Theater shooter’s sentencing. All the online producers, Sara said, received training in how to deal with comments on emotional topics.

“Our job in the end is to tell a story and facilitate conversation, not dictate it.” she said.

I asked social media editor Angilee Shah how Public Radio International manages its conversation on Facebook.

Moderating discussion is a big part of Angilee’s job.

She said PRI posts 7-10 items on its main Facebook page each day. PRI doesn’t ignore comment threads and Facebook does not allow any to be closed.

Angilee said: “I’m not just moderating in the get rid of trolls and spam sense though. I’m developing conversations – being a reporter – connecting other reporters and producers to the conversations, inviting sources into dicussions and sussing out story ideas. I do this in two rounds – mid morning and evening.”

She said the topics on that draw the most comments are immigration, climate change and Islam. She said the news organization is trying to “develop the same amount of passion among our followers on other topics.”

How does Angilee keep the record straight or civil on a platform that PRI doesn’t totally control?

“The same way any good reporter does,” she said. “Ask follow up quetsions. That’s the biggest tool. If someone make a big sweeping statement, we ask for citation and links. Then readers can judge for themselves what they believe.”

“If someone says something we know to be patently false, we correct them. If someone is being uncivil, we delete their comments and ban repeat offenders. This is our party after all, and although our guests don’t have to like each other, they do need to feel safe and comfortable to speak,” Angilee said.

Angilee added: “It’s true that there are a lot of trolls and hate speech on the internet. On my worst days I feel like being very harsh in my moderation. But I try to give people a bit more credit. If our stories bring out people’s passions that’s a good thing.”

If you want to see what a singular journalist can do well, look at syndicated columnist Connie Schultz’s Facebook page. She is a great example of a journalist as an online moderator. She sets the tone. She monitors. She challenges. She calls out and verifies, just like an in-person debate.

And Schultz’ growing audience respects and appreciates her for it.

If journalists truly value the role we play in modern democracy, we have to make an investment in the public discourse of today – happening online.

People do not always agree. Comments ARE conflict.

We can teach civility by modeling it, but it will require a shift in our priorities as journalists and news organizations.

Let’s create safe, smart places to comment and fix the problem of participation inequality.

The comments at the bottom of our news stories can be more than just a late night TV joke.

Mentions of my presentation:

The EIJ News

Latino Reporter

NJ Society of Professional Journalists

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