When I was a kid, my favorite place was the local public library.
I knew at an early age when my mom took us there, the library was a place of great knowledge. It would take a lifetime for me to work my way through it and I tried.
In the kid’s section, I read all the shelves with history books, presidents during Revolutionary times among my favorites. But sports history, U.S. history, European history, science history. The librarian taught me the Dewey Decimal system so I could determine the histories.
On occasion, I would wander over to the adult section and look at the history shelves there, sometimes taking down a book about a president and the book was thick — with few photos.
Once a librarian admonished me and sternly told me to return to the child’s section while I looked at a book about Andrew Jackson. My mom intervened, as always, nicely. “It’s OK,” she said to librarian. “He’s here with me.”
In the third grade, the elderly nun who was librarian in my grade school told me I couldn’t check out a book on presidents because it was meant for the older kids. My teacher said, “No, he actually reads these.”
When I finally went to college at age 23, it’s hard to fathom my reaction to a six-story library building complete with an archive. I’m pretty sure I did a happy dance.
Hi, my name is Rich — and an information addict.
Imagine then what I thought when I heard about the internet, where all the world’s knowledge is available at my fingertips. It would be the world’s library. Maybe even better than the Great Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt.
Instead — it was overwhelming.
Where does one begin? And who or what does one trust?
Stories appeared early. John Siegenthaler, a famed civil rights publisher and someone who had his head cracked open on the Freedom Ride, was described on Wikipedia as an avowed racist. I met John a dozen times and despite having lived a public life for 60 years, the reference broke his heart.
- A college reporter in California used information from a satire website when she transcribed a Spanish boat name as “Big ASpanish Boat.”
The internet was not like a library, where intense editing is required before the book goes to print.
And certainly, there are bad books. Famously, “The Turner Diaries” inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 156 entirely innocent people.
Then along came social media.
I had a blast on social media at first. I could keep in touch with college friends for years as we dispersed across the Midwest and beyond. And having lived in too many cities, I could find old friends and stay in their lives.
We could exchange old stories and new photos, mostly of our kids. I talked to a friend of mine at one point who said, “Isn’t Facebook awesome?” And that little journalist part of me said, “Sometimes. But it’s not reality. Social media is only about what image you wish to portray and so it isn’t fully truthful.” He said ruefully, “Yeah, I guess I’ve never seen someone post ‘I beat the crap out of my wife last night.’”
Finally, it turned mean. People could communicate things to each other that, if said face to face, would get them a slap or a punch.
It turns out the internet is only a tool and therefore only as good the user.
And if the user isn’t terribly good with logic and facts and truth, the tool will suffer.
If the user is mean and angry, it’s not the tool’s responsibility.
As for me, the info nerd, I’m going to keep using the tools, with the knowledge I need to independently verify what I’m reading. There’s an old saying in journalism: If your mother says she loves you, check it out with two sources.
That meanness thing? Take responsibility for your own actions and words.
It’s not the internet. It’s you.
Rich Jackson is the general manager and editor of the Sawyer County Record. He can be reached at (715) 718-6445 or at email@example.com.