David Plotz: President Messitte and the Ripon board, distinguished members of the faculty, alumni, special guests, friends, and family members, and, most of all, graduates of the Ripon Class of 2014, thank you for inviting us to share in your commencement.
Graduates, it is somewhat hilarious that we have been invited to tell you about new media. This is roughly equivalent to us playing a football game, while the Green Bay Packers sit in the stands and watch. You should be the ones instructing us.
Hanna Rosin: You had a Facebook account before you could drive, and texted before you could talk in full sentences. Yes, we’re successful online journalists. But we’ve never even looked at Snapchat and—what is WhatsApp? When we graduated from college—believe it or not—we didn’t even have email and we still called our friends … on a landline.
You have skills and habits and knowledge that give you an enormous edge over us, over your parents, over the employers who are about to hire you.
But here’s the thing. You’re sheltered. You’ve gone from a high school where everyone knows you to a small friendly college where you’re protected. You’re busy on social media but you’re also surrounded by your actual friends, not just Facebook “friends.” If you’ve had embarrassing social media moments I’m guessing there was a “responsible adult,” as they say, to clean it up.
Plotz: So here’s where we come in. We’ve spent two decades working in the new media, watching it grow up. We’ve made dreadful mistakes with it, and learned how to clean them up ourselves. Before you’re loosed upon the world, we hope we can offer you a quick survival guide for your new virtual life, a guide that teaches you how to be your best self in an age of new media.
In that spirit, we offer a commencement address in the form of nine tweets, and one selfie.
1. Instagram is evil. #TheGrassIsAlwaysGreener
Think about this beautiful day: You have graduated from college, your parents love you, your life ahead is full of adventure. Your hair is doing exactly what it should and your wallet is full. Then you get home and check Instagram. One friend has posted a picture of himself skateboarding in Hollywood. Another is doing a perfect headstand on a beach in Hawaii. A third is sitting next to her new boss, Google CEO Sergey Brin. You scream and feel woozy. You are another victim of the pernicious disease called “Instagram envy.”
“They are happier and having better lives than I am.” This is the title of an actual academic paper. What researchers found was that trolling through friends’ feeds was shown to correlate with feelings of loneliness and even depression. At its worst, it can lead to the incurable “envy spiral.” Instagram is most dangerous, because photos bring on a purer, more lethal form of the disease. Reading about Hawaii is very different from seeing a picture of your friend, the sand, the ocean, the coconut with the straw—while you’re sitting at your IKEA desk in your new basement apartment. Believe me, it’s something you want to avoid. Spend at least one night a week with your phone off and read a book. If you need to go on Instagram, set the timer for 10 minutes. And if you start to feel envy spiral coming on, convince yourself that one second after that photo was taken your friend stepped on a jellyfish.
2. Once a day, read something you disagree with. #groupthink
Show me your Google search history, and I will tell you who you voted for, where you live, what you believe. The new media are very good at giving you what you want. The problem is the new media are very good at giving you ONLY what you want.
If you’re a liberal, the algorithms that run the Internet are going to filter the world in a liberal way for you, nudging you toward information that confirms your trust in Obamacare and your support for marriage equality. The same thing on the right: You read at Breitbart and watch on Fox, and learn all the things Wisconsin’s public employee unions are doing wrong. The new media world constantly affirms your beliefs. The result: We become even more sheltered. We come to believe that everyone believes what we do, because we’re cut off from people who are different. It’s not just true online: The real world magnifies it. Americans used to live and work with people who held different beliefs from them. Increasingly we have moved ourselves into neighborhoods filled with people just like us and work with colleagues just like us. It’s comforting to only read what you want to hear. It’s also boring, and narrowing. So whenever you can, read what you hate. You’ll learn something.
3. Everything you write is public. #YouDidntGetTheJob
On the eve of the royal wedding, a Buckingham Palace guard wrote on his personal Facebook page “Hur and william drove past me on friday n all a got was a stupid wave while she looked the opposite way from me, stupid stuck up cow” (and that’s the family-friendly version of what he wrote). He was fired.
A new New York City public school teacher wrote on her Facebook page, “After today, I’m thinking the beach is a good trip for my class. I hate their guts.” The previous day, a New York student had drowned while on a field trip to the beach. While only her friends could see her page, one of them was a fellow teacher who forwarded the post to the principal. She was suspended.
A young guy applied for a job at the FBI. The person interviewing him checked his Twitter feed. A tweet from the day before read: “Skipping work. Sick (ha ha) Cheers to the boss, from McSorley’s.” The interview was canceled.
We can’t say this enough times: Twitter is public. Facebook is public. It’s called social media because people can see it. Resist the urge to brag.
4. When it doubt, trust the data. #NumbersDontLie(Much)
For the first time in human history, the mass collection of data allows us to test ideas that we used to only guess at. The best example of this: your 2013 commencement speaker, Nate Silver. Sick of all the pundits predicting election outcomes from their gut, Nate decided to revolutionize political prediction. He collected and analyzed the huge volumes of poll data for the 2008 election. He considered sample size, method of polling, previous track record of the poll, and much more. And he nailed the results. Then he did it again—even better—in 2012, while pundits ate crow.
Rosin: If you want to, you can turn your own life into a mini–data experiment. A few years ago, a woman named Amy Webb was single, in her 30s, and sick of meeting the wrong kind of guys online. So she found the perfect matchmaker. The Algorithm. She created 10 fake profiles. She wanted to see what appealed to the men she liked best. She collected the data, perfected her approach, and soon found a husband. Then she wrote a book about it, Data, a Love Story. So if you’re feeling confused, muddled, like you’re doing it all wrong. Try Data!
5. Wait five minutes. It might be a rumor. #BieberIsDead!
Did you know that Morgan Freeman died of a ruptured artery! 50 Cent was in a private plane crash! Eddie Murphy was in a snowmobiling accident. And poor, poor Justin Bieber: He overdosed on cocaine! No, he died in a car crash. Wait, actually he died in a different car crash. Hold on, I have an update, he was shot in a nightclub!
The new media move fast, and they move crazy. A well-timed prank, or a misunderstanding, can gallop across the world on Twitter and Facebook in minutes, accelerating with every share and retweet. Sometimes the fake story doesn’t harm anyone—Eddie Murphy’s bogus death doesn’t really matter unless you’re Eddie Murphy or Eddie Murphy’s mom. But occasionally haste is cruel and stupid. Just ask the two innocent boys who were splashed on the front page of the New York Post, and fingered on Reddit, as Boston bombing suspects, just for being brown-skinned and carrying bags. So before you retweet, take a breath and ask yourself: Do I know if this is true?
6. You’re already obsolete. #OlderButWiser
The thing that we have in common with all of you is the midlife crisis. In our case we are having one because we have actually reached middle age. In your case, you’ve been born into a generation that enters midlife crisis at 22. Eleven-year-olds give TED talks. Twelve-year-olds develop world-changing apps. A fifteen-year-old takes the fashion world by storm and summits with Miley Cyrus. Don’t let it get under your skin. There were child prodigies in the 1800s, and there are child prodigies today. The only difference is that the ones today have a million Twitter followers. Technology has still not managed to speed up maturity or wisdom. There will always be someone who’s heard of an app you never heard of, watched a YouTube video you didn't watch, invented a new programming language in Magic Marker. Learn to pity these people, because they have landed on the world stage before they are ready. You—you have the patience to wait until you discover what you love, and spend the rest of your life mastering it.
7. Just because you can work in pajamas, doesn’t mean you should. #MeetMeAtTheWaterCooler.
On the Internet, nobody cares where you are, right? You can be a 70-year-old in Finland. A 12-year-old in Cairo, a college student in Ripon, Wisconsin, and your blog can be just as good, your tweet just as snappy, your YouTube video just as viral. And that’s true—sort of. The new media has enabled everyday Joes from out of the way places to make names for themselves. But like most versions of the American dream, that’s not as true as it seems. The overwhelming majority of successful Internet and technology businesses are in a few cities—Silicon Valley, New York, Austin, Seattle. The vast majority of digital journalism comes out of New York, D.C., and Silicon Valley. Why is that? Because people can generate more ideas when they are together than when they’re alone. Good ideas are often accidental, and come from spontaneous interactions. Think of your own college highlight reel, and how much your good times depended on literally sharing the same physical space—this campus, these dorms—with your classmates and professors. Don’t just be social on Facebook. Be social in real life.
8. There isn’t always someone better out there #pickypicky
Believe it or not, dating is relatively easy in college. You have decent prospects all around you, and you know them. Once you’re out, it gets harder to figure out how to find someone. Your prospects are scattered, and they are also infinite. And that’s the problem. Go on OkCupid and you can scroll through pages and pages of cute guys and girls you might want to date. If you don’t like the nurse with bangs, you can message the curly-haired nurse a few profiles down. Pretty soon you will get the impression that the dating pool is actually a Pacific Ocean of choices. You can swim and swim forever and never get to shore. This feeling might make you dizzy with happiness for a while—especially if you’re a guy—but trust us, the happiness won’t last. There isn’t always someone better out there. Or maybe a better way to put it is: Everyone out there is flawed in their own special way. Falling in love is not about finding a person who’s perfect. It’s about finding someone whose flaws you find as magnetic as their charms.
9. You really only have one big decision to make. #SicknessAndInHealth.
You didn’t ask one of us here today, you asked both of us. We’re digital journalists. We’re podcasters. We’re writers. Most of all, we’re spouses.
By far the most important decision you’re likely to make in the next decade is not where you live or what you study or what job you do or how you use new media. It is who you are going to spend your life with, or if you’re going to spend it with anyone at all.
Rosin: This choice decides who will be parent to your children, who will nurse you in illness, who will travel with you, who will have sex with you, who will load the dishwasher with you. All the other decisions are trivial compared to this one: Make it count.
Plotz: That’s nine tweets. Now the selfie. We’re so happy to be with you, and with each other. Let’s celebrate with a picture together. We’re in Wisconsin, so I know every photo comes with a cheese joke. How about we say TWEET instead?
Rosin: Congratulations, graduates, and let’s follow each other on Twitter.