Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Excuse me, but we urgently need to talk about social media and power

In a big way, like an advancing sand dune, the gradual evolution of media shifting power onto the street seems to have missed most of us.

New media like social media and blogs has subsumed itself into our society and everyone seems happy with how it looks and what they can now do. It’s a brave new world. One minute we were all reading newspapers, the next we all implicitly set blogs and social media on the same pedestal and no one batted an eye. We just kept walking.

Maybe it has something to do with the way the Internet was structured at the beginning. In one respect, an entire generation grew up assuming that everything on the Internet is supposed to be free. Free content, free communication, free speech - that's how it was and it was never going to change.

Of course, at its inception this was a huge benefit to the spread of information, in fact it was really the only way to do it. If publishers had ever tried charging visitors to read all those primitive websites back in the 1990s the Internet may never have blossomed into the force it is today.

But because everything was free, when the established media wanted to join the fun by putting their stories online, they too had to drop the price tag. In the eyes of a kid growing up during this time (and bear in mind that an 18 year old was born in 1996), if all the established media operating online could be read for free right alongside a swanky-looking blog, how were they to know the difference?

How is that kid supposed to know that blogs are actually the new invention, it’s the online newspaper that’s been around for centuries? In their mind, there's no difference because the spent dollar value is the same. 

During this period most people cried crocodile tears over the approaching “death” of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, but the merits of what was to come next wasn’t deeply considered.

It’s unlikely that blogs probably will never completely replace traditional media organisations, but their percolation into our consciousness is advanced enough to blur the lines between it and established media making them almost indistinguishable from personal opinion for the average Internet surfer.

On top of all this, there's now so much news on the Internet that it's a real effort for people to find what they need to know quickly and efficiently. That's a real problem. It may not have been perfect – and it's a damn sight better than it used to be  – but at least the traditional media constrained the static long enough to parse a signal. Bloggers and social networks are now causing so much white noise that the signal is harder and harder for everyone to hear. What happens when we miss it? How will we know when we miss the signal? 

This is probably all a byproduct of the present information age. There was always going to be a tipping point where the amount of possible information reached too great a level for society to metabolise effectively.

Actually, that's a good analogy for what's going on. The way societies consume information in this new age is very much like how an organism functions. If there's too little information, we're starved and can't make good decisions. Too much and we're paralysed. We end up regurgitating muddled and mixed messages back into the system, further limiting the ability to make informed decisions.

For centuries people fought and died so power could be dragged out from the ivory towers and into our hands. But now that it's out, now that information does not need to grind through traditional filters, is this the new world we expected? 

In my mind, it's kind of like the problems with the Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged out of the dark days of the GFC a little while ago. It's all very well that people want the status quo to change, but no one ever articulated what it would be replaced with.

There was no Martin Luther King jr or Lenin leading the Occupy Wall Street movement and so it collapsed under the weight of its own incoherence. We may be seeing the same thing happen with media. Society is running excitedly into this new, flatter world as it evolves around us. Most people simply shrug their shoulders as if it's inevitable and nothing can be done.

It is a good thing – that's undoubtedly the case – and no one would advocate going back to the days of full information control. But too few people are sitting down to ask the crucial questions about what it means for our society when power changes hands like this.

The revolution we all wished for may not have arrived on the backs of armoured tanks or through riven prison gates, but it is still a revolution nonetheless and we need to be thinking about what it means. 

Unfortunately, as information power spreads onto the street, there is an emerging tendency to shun expert analysis. I'd never advocate our leaders marginalising public opinion, but marginalising experts is just as bad and yet somehow championed by social media and by many bloggers.

Some things in life really can't be argued, there are distinct facts which we've spent countless hours and money trying to understand. It does everyone a disservice to pretend that this new media of social networking and blogging means that everyone's opinion matter. The best thing about our society is that everyone can have an opinion, but it's crucial to remember that not all opinions are equal.

Some people really should be listened to on some topics and others really shouldn't. There has to be a balance here, between traditional media structure and opinion, and I'm not sure we've all agreed where that balance is yet. Clearly there's a lot more thinking to be done. Perhaps we're not hearing all about the good ideas because of all that drowning noise outlined earlier. But equally, perhaps not enough smart people are thinking about it.

I don't mean to malign the finance and banking industries, but over the past 20 years, it was the smarter kids who saw how much money they could make by working there. They spent their formative education years preparing for a future in those industries.

Many might have applied their brains instead to science, engineering or other parts of society desperately needing their ideas. But they didn't, and now we have to cope with the results. There's still time to think about all this, but we need more brains and clear thought.

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