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Docs fail to make the Facebook connection

We live in an age of pernicious idiocy. It's a well-known fact. Why, the other night, the President of the United States of America, a once-great nation, went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and, if the gist of reporting is to be believed, the newsworthy upshot is that he admitted that he has never seen Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

And then there's Facebook. Don't get me started on Facebook. Oh, to be sure I'm on the thing, putting up links to this column and "liking" the activities of nice people I know. And, about half the time that I'm on Facebook, I'm being encouraged to become friends with people I'd cross the street to avoid.

Still, most of us are on Facebook, from individuals to newspapers like this one. Does it help anyone or anything? Well, yes, one supposes. But another well-known fact about our age is that nobody is quite sure what's going on with personal and mass communication. There are more ways to connect and blather on, but where it leads is a great mystery.

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Television is terrible at conveying the impact and the nuances of online communication. It tends to overstate and often misses the point. There are few things on TV more idiotic than some nitwit standing beside a computer screen and intoning what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter or by e-mail. The context of the connection is missing. Humour is missing. The banal is as important as the brilliantly incisive.

Facebook Follies(CBC, Doc Zone, 9 p.m.) is one of those well-meaning but entirely predictable documentaries that attempts to tell us something significant about contemporary communications and ends us telling us very little.

We get a list of wacky or weird Facebook-related incidents. A teenager in Germany invited people to her birthday party on Facebook, forget to set her privacy setting correctly and ended up sending the invitations to many thousands of people. A few thousand showed up. We see footage of teenagers gathering and acting badly and the cops trying to control the ensuing mini-riot. We're told about a would-be political candidate in British Columbia whose career was derailed by the discovery of old photos on Facebook that showed him goofing around in a high school. In one photo, he had his hand on a young woman's breast. That was the end of that.

An expert of some sort turns up and tells us, "People are basically cavemen in front on the computer." Right-o. We knew that. All you have to do is read the online comments on most newspaper websites. Some other "expert" turns up to warn about putting photos and remarks online, and declares, "There are consequences down the road that are impossible to predict." Get out! Do ya think?

The upshot is that we are told that people are stupid about online communications. They do foolish things. Yeah, well, people didn't get more foolish because of Facebook and Twitter. They only got more vocal.

Facebook Follies, written and directed by Geoff D'Eon, a veteran producer on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, tells us about the idiocy, but he doesn't go far enough. We are inundated with half-baked theories. And we are lacking knowledge. People can be ridiculously naive, hateful, snide and unaware. As they always have been. Tell us something new.

Mind you, there are other perspectives on social media and Facebook in particular. How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring (airing on BBC World, Saturday at 11 p.m., and various times on Sunday) is a brisk and rather generous assessment of how Facebook influenced the events of what is now known as the Arab Spring. The reporter is the great Mishal Husain and the doc does tell a fascinating story, especially about events in Tunisia. We learn that a repressive government essentially misunderstood Facebook. But we also learn that it was not just Facebook but encrypted Internet chat rooms that helped to connect those who were brazen enough to organize challenges to authorities.

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In terms of what happened in Egypt and other countries, the doc's focus on social media is less convincing. What's overlooked is, in a nutshell, television and televised images. No matter how much attention is lavished on middle-class twentysomethings who are Internet-savvy, the reality is that mass movements are stirred by compelling images.

As a reviewer of the doc in Britain pointed out, only a fifth of the population in Egypt actually has access to the Internet, and what brought crowds to Tahrir Square was rumour and the old-fashioned technology of activists handing out flyers on the street.

Yes, it's true that some people have lost their jobs because of material found on Facebook. Yes, it's true that Facebook played a role in stoking revolutionary thoughts and ideas. But what really matters is that we are clueless about what happens next. And whatever it is, it won't have actually happened until it's on television, not Facebook.

Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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