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Introducing News & Then

November 21, 2013 in History

November 21, 2013 9:44 a.m.

It seems like every week there’s a new article about the negative effects of Internet culture on American society. We’re cautioned that the Internet is making us more isolated, more divided, and less empathetic; or that Twitter and Facebook are eroding our already limited collective attention span and capacity for sustained, nuanced discussion. Some have even questioned whether the Internet may ultimately spell the end of “deep reading.”

Our latest American Experience project, News & Then, takes a more optimistic view: that digital media can be a powerful tool for connection and engagement, and can deepen our understanding of the world we live in and the historic struggles that have shaped it.

As someone who trained as a historian, I’m a big fan of encouraging close reading and rich, complex conversations. There’s no question that in some ways, the rise of online social networks has reinforced what was already a sound bite-oriented media culture. I can understand the concerns many feel about the health of public discourse and community in a world where “breaking news” today is old hat tomorrow.

I often think, though, that dire warnings of the death of reading and empathy, thanks to the web, are simplistic and rather premature. On top of being a recovering academic (shoutout to my fellow grad school escapees), I’m also a big fan of online media — precisely because they make discussions and relationships possible that often couldn’t happen offline. Twitter allows you to strike up a conversation with almost anyone, and to find audiences not as easily reached through traditional media.

Some of the most thought-provoking, paradigm-shifting exchanges I’ve had in recent years have been conducted 140 characters at a time — like this spontaneous Twitter chat about global black identities, immigration, and the differences between being “Black” and being “African American.” The question is less whether social media or digital platforms are bad or good for an engaged public, but how to harness them to connect different communities and drive conversations that deepen and complicate our understandings of ourselves and the world we live in.

That’s why I’m so excited to be part of News & Then, a pilot project from WGBH that’s aimed at addressing this very question. News & Then is an interactive digital platform that brings video clips from American Experience, the very best of traditional media, together with social and new media …read more


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