If you have even the remotest ties to the state of Nebraska, chances are that in the last week someone you know, are friends with on Facebook or who you follow on Twitter has touted a video of a Good Morning America segment about a website naming Nebraska as the “happiest state in the nation.” The segment, which features co-hosts Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts, discusses MainStreet.com’s initial Happiness Index, a formula based on a state’s general financial health that, after all was said and done, put the Cornhusker State atop the site’s first list of states.
The buzz about Nebraska’s top ranking started, it appears, on Wednesday of last week. Since then, the video has gone viral around the state. A good number of Nebraskans — including a local TV personality and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson — joined in the celebration of the state’s lofty status:
Just judging from my own experience and a few social-media searches, the story chugged through the weekend and has kept up its steam early this week: In the last six days, no fewer than a dozen of my Facebook friends have posted links to the GMA video on Facebook. On Twitter, the #Nebraska, #UNL and #LNK (for Lincoln, Neb.) hashtags were graced with steady tweets, and then, naturally, Retweets, passing along the proclamation and containing links to the video. I even got a few e-mails at work about the happy news. It was breathtaking to watch such an affirming story spread across the state’s digital landscape … except for one small detail: We’re not No. 1.
We were, once. But that video that’s being passed around is nearly two years old. It appeared on the April 6, 2009, edition of Good Morning America, the same day MainStreet.com announced its initial Happiness Index — which did, at that point, have the Cornhusker State in the top spot. At the time, the local media did stories on it. I recall pitching it to national media and actually had one of our economists talk with the Wall Street Journal about this novel new economic index.
In the nearly two years since, MainStreet.com has occasionally updated its Happiness Index rankings, and Nebraska has been at or near the top in all of them. But, as luck would have it, MainStreet.com’s most recent Happiness Index has Nebraska at No. 2, behind our neighbor to the west, Wyoming. Which now not only makes the current wave of proclamations that Nebraska is the “happiest” state outdated, but also inaccurate.
It’s interesting that this story has had such social-media virility in the last week. The page everyone is linking to is clearly date-stamped “April 6, 2009,” right below the ABC video player:
Also, for anyone familiar with GMA, the second clear tipoff that this was not a new report is the presence of Diane Sawyer, who has been gone from Good Morning America for more than a year. Yet, the idea that this is somehow a new story, that Nebraska has just been named the “happiest state,” has enjoyed — and is still enjoying as I write this — exceptional viral movement in Nebraskans’ social-media circles.
So, what does this say? A couple of things, I figure. First, it shows how casual of a medium social media can be. It’s a fair bet that many people who eagerly hit “Share” on Facebook or “Retweet” on Twitter so they could pass it along to their followers weren’t paying very close attention — or probably didn’t even watch the video. Since it takes just a few seconds to click “Share” or “Retweet,” many probably just took it at face value and forwarded it along. On the flip side, this also shows how limited social media’s tools are in trying to debunk false information: Attempting to put the genie back in the bottle or to try to counter the current wave of misinformation would be futile. Because it’s so easy to just click and send along, this story quickly multiplied to the point where it was everywhere.
This casual attitude about information is a byproduct of the most obvious, yet most powerful element of social media: Trust. Whether they realize it or not, people put an amazing amount of trust in the people who make up their social networks. They trust them on what movies to see, what books to read, what TV shows with which to waste their time. In some tightly-knit circles, they even trust them with their politics, matters of religion and other more complicated facets of life. And, as this recent event shows, they clearly trust their networks with the accuracy and currency of their news. Why should there even be a question about accuracy or currency if I got it from my favorite aunt, who I know is a pretty smart cookie, much less if a United States Senator is also saying it? And on it went.
This story, about a website’s arbitrary rankings, is really pretty harmless, so it’s nothing to get too worked up about. But not all news stories are as benign in nature. And that’s both intriguing and a little bit scary. Much has been made of the democratization of information and the decline of “traditional” media in the advent of the web and social media. By and large, that’s been a good thing — it’s opened up new outlets and perspectives and forced “traditional” media to modernize and adapt to the fast-moving digital landscape. But (and I’m not trying to sound too much like Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben here) with that power does come some responsibility to think more critically about the information flowing across your screen or your smartphone.
Hey, signing up for Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean you have to suddenly wear a fedora with a “PRESS” card in the hatband, but we’d all do well to not simply take information at face value, to scrutinize the sources of our information and to conduct a modest amount of due diligence before perpetuating the information. At some point, doing so will have deeper consequences. Or prevent deeper consequences, which is just as important.
In a world where everyone has their own digital printing press and can crank it into action with a click of a mouse, a little extra scrutiny can make a lot of difference. You’ll truly earn your followers’ trust, and that will make everyone happy.