What can we do about social media cul-de-sacs?

IMG_0851Following the closure of the print edition of the newspaper ‘Independent’, Andrew Marr wrote the following, in The Guardian:

 

The big story is well understood. Digital is much cheaper than analogue, or Gutenberg technology. The cumbersome is collapsing, outpaced by the nimble. That allows new voices into an old debate-cartel. But it’s not all genteel and attractive.

 

A lot of the capital cost is actually passed to the consumer. Under the old model, large industrial corporations used capital-heavy technology to make and then distribute information to individuals. In the new model we – you and me – purchase the computers, Wi-Fi accounts, apps, mobile phones and sometimes subscriptions, which allow corporations to pass the information to us more cheaply. For media companies, it’s a great gig. If you are poor, don’t have the connections or the gear or the bank accounts, perhaps less so.

 

I remember how the internet was touted to be a democratising force, bringing information freely to everyone, regardless of social or economic status. And it does, but to an extent, only. As Andrew Marr notes, capital and connections may amplify, rather than reduce, differences in a society, as we have access to markedly different sources of information.

 

But that is not all.

 

In addition to the societal impact of differential levels of access to infrastructure noted by Andrew Marr, there is also the huge impact of where people choose to spend their time, online.

 

More and more people (and not just youngsters) get most of their information via Facebook. Some might follow the Facebook page of a news provider, but others not even that. So, if an event or a commentary makes its way into their Facebook feed, they might read it. But otherwise, they won’t. It is what Hossein Derakshan, the Iranian blogger who was jailed for his blogging activities, termed as the ‘cul-de-sacs of social media’. He says, in this amazing article that he wrote after leaving prison:

(A) blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage – and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web (…) Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites. But what are we exchanging for efficiency?

 

Maybe everything will be alright in the end. Just like roads might have disrupted forms of living, favouring some and hurting others, in the end, it was for the better. But, for now, this situation saddens me, and worries me. And makes me wonder how I can contribute to broaden horizons, create dynamism, help ideas move. What about you?

2 thoughts on “What can we do about social media cul-de-sacs?

  1. It’s an interesting time. We’re exchanging the old moguls for new ones – newspaper publishers are replaced by social networks. And yes, the ‘masses’, to put it rather derogatory, are probably following only what’s been put in front of them by algorithms, often without even realizing they’re presented limited information by machines. Fortunately, we’re not all “the masses”. I think there are still enough people who think, publish/create, debate and share/spread ideas. We have an enormous arsenal of tools available to us to do so. The important thing is: we should use that indeed to share our ideas, debate ideas by commenting on content from others, share the content of others and also don’t forget about the channels not dominated by algorithms or evil publishing magnates: the personal contacts over coffee, meetups or conferences.

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    1. Thank you, Arjan. Yes, I think that one of the main problems is the lack of awareness of the ‘bubble’ – if we don’t realise we are in one, there is no hope of ever breaking it…

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