Pulling Heartstrings on Social Media

Sometimes I may not appreciate being told what to do, but I always resent being told how I ought to feel.  Yet on a daily basis, in matters large and small, I find myself being told that I must have emotional reactions to things as grave as the civil war in Syria, or as trivial as which brand of loo paper will better my life, all couched in the same terms.  Whether you realize it or not, gentle reader, this insidious type of manipulation is happening to you as well, all the time. Only now, it is not only happening in print or television media, but in your social media world as well.

Yesterday afternoon, barring some unforeseen intervention, a dog who shall remain nameless was put down at an animal shelter which shall also remain nameless. Admittedly this is not some new occurrence: it happens every day, all over the United States and indeed around the world.  I only know about it because someone placed this information in my social media timeline. Yet what truly struck me was not so much the plight of the dog, but rather the way in which I learnt of her impending doom.

For you see, the shelter housing the dog tweeted out that unless the dog was rescued by a certain time yesterday afternoon, the dog would be destroyed. This tweet included a picture and brief description of the dog, as well as contact information should the person who saw the tweet decide to save the dog’s life.  Needless to say, I found this rather dramatic.

As an experiment, I decided to share the tweet and see what sort of responses it elicited from my followers.  I asked those who cared to respond what they thought about this tweet, but I did not include any editorial comments of my own.  Rather, I wanted to see what sort of reactions I would receive from a cross-section of people. Admittedly this was not a scientific poll nor a carefully controlled survey, but the results are still instructive.

Reactions were split almost exactly into two equal camps. Half of the respondents were moved by pity to say that the tweet emotionally affected them, and were saddened by their inability to do anything to help the dog. These ranged from expressions of wanting to adopt the dog if they could, to feelings of heartbreak, concern, and so on. I did not have the heart to point out that a visit to the shelter’s profile page would reveal that there were, in fact, dozens of other dogs with the same sad story of nearing death unless they were adopted by a certain deadline.

Others, however, had quite a different reaction to this tweet, including at least one dog owner.

One described the tweet as “cheap” and “sensational”. They felt that the attempt failed to make them feel guilty, however, though they could not explain why it had failed. Another compared the shelter unfavorably to those who post images of dead people on social media to shock people and attract attention for a particular cause, while another said they had never seen anything like it on Twitter before, and did not appreciate it. Still another described the tweet as merely “crass emotional manipulation”.

What was particularly interesting was the fact that some of those whose strongest emotional reaction was pity did not at first appear to realize the effect the impending deadline had on them.  Once this was pointed out to them, upon further reflection several suddenly realized that they were being manipulated. Once they had accepted that there was nothing they could do for the dog, and their initial sense of sorrow for the dog had given way to rationality, they recognized that they had been “handled”.

To my mind, there is something rather more macabre about announcing that you will be killing an animal, than simply doing it quietly. It reminds me a bit of posting a bill at a place of execution such as Tyburn in London, saying that so-and-so will be hanged, drawn, and quartered by order of Bad Queen Bess on such-and-such a day, should you care to come along and bring a picnic lunch. Though of course there is a very important difference here, and that is that animals, much as we may love them, are not human beings. To react to the putting down of a dog as something akin to execution is to hold an imbalanced view one’s place in the natural order.

More to the point of this piece however, this is an example of how a group of people can have completely different reactions to the same information, based on how that information is presented to them. Both editorial boards and advertising agencies have understood for a long time that by playing the emotional heartstrings, the public can be manipulated into doing whatever you want, whether it is selling newspapers to start a war, or asking people to watch a monkey throw excrement from behind a screen. William Randolph Hearst built San Simeon as a result of the former, and Piers Morgan is on CNN because of the latter.

Despite the supposed media-savvy nature of those of us who are Gen-X and younger, Americans are still far too easily influenced by those who whip up an emotional overreaction on the part of their target audience. This is nothing new, of course, for examples abound in American history. Yet so often we focus on national and international issues, analyzing what a pundit or a politician means in a major speech, that we miss the more mundane forms of that level of manipulation when we come across them in daily life.

Therefore pay attention in your social media, gentle reader, the next time you read a tweet or see a post that makes you feel emotional. All human beings feel emotions, but not all emotional reactions are ultimately beneficial. Take the time to ask yourself: do I really agree with what I am being asked to do or believe, here? For oftentimes you will discover that the rational, adult reaction is to take a deep breath, and not allow yourself to be manipulated.

“Marionettes” by John Singer Sargent (1903)
Private Collection

Frank Lloyd Wright Goes to the Dogs – and Kids

Even if you do not study architecture, gentle reader, you have probably heard the name of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), or recognize some of his most famous buildings.  From the Guggenheim Museum in New York, to the Fallingwater house outside of Pittsburgh,  he left his mark across the United States with his innovative designs.  Yet he also left a very personal mark with a young boy who asked for his assistance, and the example he set by it is something we, too, ought to consider emulating.

In his ever-evolving building style, we might observe that Wright began as a Midwesterner, but ended up an Internationalist.  His career really took off when he worked with the great Louis Sullivan in Chicago, but eventually he set out on his own, incorporating influences from both ancient and modern sources.  Thus, a heavily horizontal house indebted to traditional Japanese ideas about how one ought to live, might feature decorated concrete wall panels in a neo-Mayan style, mixed with the minimalist steel posts and plate-glass windows used in skyscraper construction.

Apart from a few exceptions, such as the interior of the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, truth be told I am not a huge fan of Wright’s work.  I recognize his importance, but I do not care for most of his completed structures, which often make me think of an abandoned mortuary temple from a long-vanished, alien civilization.  It is probably no accident that many of the matte paintings in science fiction television shows, such as the Klingon home world on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, bear more than a passing resemblance to some of Wright’s design concepts.

That being said, I recently read the charming story of a 12-year-old boy, whose parents had commissioned and built a home designed by Wright, who wrote to the great architect and asked whether he could also design a dog house for his black lab Eddie, to match the family’s new house.  The boy asked that the dog house be relatively easy to build, and promised to pay for the plans  out of his paper route.  As you can read in the complete story, Wright eventually complied with the plans, free of charge, and the result is probably one of the only doghouses in the world designed by a  major architect.

Putting aside the question of whether the design was a good one or not – it weighed a ton, the dog didn’t like it much, and it (predictably) leaked – it was a lovely thing for Wright to do.  His action challenges us to think about what talents we have that might make a real difference in someone else’s life.  We may not be an important architect or someone famous of course, but all of us possess some talent or talents which we are good at, and that can be used for the benefit of others.

However I think that the example Wright gives in this story is one that goes beyond just kindness to others, in that it acknowledges the importance of both animals and children.  Perhaps in Wright’s mind, crotchety egoist that he was, most of the time he viewed these two as really being one in the same thing.  Yet he still took the time to do something that he thought a dog and his young master might love.  It is easier to understand why Wright might go to the dogs over such a project, since his parenting skills were described by one relative as “Soviet”, though his doing something for a child perhaps carries a greater significance.

Those of us who are adults may think that a concern for children is something limited to those who have their own.  Or on a professional level, we may ascribe such a concern to those who are paid to care for someone else’s children, whether as a pediatrician, babysitter, and so on.  We may find the groups of schoolchildren who make seemingly endless amounts of noise on the commuter train or in church, or who crowd like packs of wild dogs in public places like our streets and movie theatres, to be extremely irritating. Yet ensuring that the next generation not only physically survives into adulthood, but does so with an understanding of the values of charity, compassion, and respect for others is something of interest to all.

Shirking the responsibility of setting a good example for young people is not only selfish, it is ultimately self-defeating.  For one day, those annoying children will be adults, and we shall be aged and infirm.  If we do not care for them, and gently show them how they ought to behave as well-formed adults, then we can hardly expect them to act toward us in a way in which we ourselves failed to act toward them.

Frank Lloyd Wright may not have been the most pleasant man in the world, according to many of his contemporaries and biographers. Yet even he managed to produce something out of sheer kindness toward a boy and his dog, as famous and as busy a figure as he was.  Are we really so very important, in our own lives, that we cannot possibly do something similar, for the generations that come after ours?