Thu 17 Feb 2011
Thanks to Michael Nixon for pointing me at this article on the BBC on social networking and activism. I recommend reading (or at least skimming) it before continuing.
This is a very interesting article with a surprisingly high-quality discussion happening in the comment section. I think there are two areas where he really oversimplifies and/or misunderstands the nature of social media. The first is in point 3 on his list when he characterizes social media as inhospitable to propaganda. The second is in point 6 when he claims that technology has wrought an end to vertical hierarchies. I’ve seen many people make similar simplifications and generalizations about technology and communication, but given that Mason’s project in this article is specifically about explicating the dynamics of how people use social media to fuel political movements in the 21st century I felt it relevant to dig deeper into his assumptions.
Critiquing this tiny point in a BBC news article is really just an excuse to explore a number of ideas that I think are interesting and important when it comes to what we are currently calling “social media”. There are two misconceptions about social media that I’d like to discuss here. The first is what I am calling “the myth of the horizontal”. The second I am calling “the myth of victorious truth”.
The Myth of the Horizontal
Contrary to the claims of many commentators, social media does not operate in a perfectly non-hierarchical, non authoritarian, horizontal manner: the hierarchies that exist in the social media space are simply less formalized. In a traditional “vertical” system you have a tree or a pyramid structure. Power and information flows from the few people at the top to the many people at the bottom. The idea of horizontal or non-hierarchical communities instead places people in an interconnected lattice of information and power, where no one individual (or group of individuals) is any more important than another. On the surface this seems like a great idea, and it makes an attractive model for discussing the social media space. However it overlooks the tendency of people – when left to their own devices – to self-organize into hierarchical systems. The social media space is no exception to this quirk of human nature. In the physical world, these organizations revolve around structuring of human efforts: hierarchies are valuable for accomplishing tasks, organizing action, and centralizing power. In the social media sphere these organizations revolve around the structuring of attention: digital hierarchies are valuable for making sense of the informational space in which they are situated.
For the purposes of argument, I’m going to make an (admittedly) simplistic distinction between bottom-up hierarchical structures and top-down structures in social media. We can identify shifting bottom-up emergent hierarchies in Twitter (and the ‘net writ large) by measuring where the attention economy is directed at any given point. These can aggregate and overlap in powerful ways. Fan culture provides a valuable model for this. For instance, look at the conversations between Amanda Palmer, Wil Wheaton, Warren Ellis, and Felicia Day on Twitter for a few days and you start to get a sense of the hidden social structures that govern huge chunks of fan culture. I think of these as bottom-up and emergent because there is no obvious social agenda driving their conversation: Amanda, Wil, Warren, and Felicia did not sit down in a bunker and decide to develop a system of geek values which they would impose on their fans (and on culture at large) though a series of ongoing Tweets and blog posts. While each of them is a participant in the social space – and so has a particular value system or agenda, which is in turn informed by whatever worldviews that they subscribe to – there is no organizational imperative for them to promulgate these worldviews to their fans.
These emergent structures are native to social media: even before the current incarnation of the web, these types of fan cultures and community organizations used social technologies like fan clubs and mailing lists to build connections between members. Twitter and Facebook provide a better communication channel for the same social networking to happen at a more rapid pace, among a larger population, and in a much broader context. Before, we might have had the Amanda Palmer fan club, or the Warren Ellis fan club. Now we have a big undifferentiated space of Fandom, with overlapping territories colonized by Amanda and Warren.
However for every emergent, bottom-up circle of influence (to borrow a term from Vernor Vinge) there is another top-down circle of influence which employs organizational structures (corporate, or governmental) to create a message using the same channels of social media that the emergent structures are founded on. Political campaigns, advertizing campaigns, news media and journalism, activist groups, and revolutionary groups are all top-down approaches to social media. These are the same media that we’ve had for centuries, adapting to the new channels of communication that the internet has birthed. They are not native to the social-media space, and some of them were slow to colonize it at first, but now they are a real and unavoidable presence. The structure of social networks and social media means that top-down systems have had to reinvent themselves using bottom-up tools: they have learned to camouflage themselves in the language of the emergent systems; they are learning how to navigate within an attention economy.
Both top-down (authoritarian) and bottom-up (emergent) structures still represent a form of hierarchical power distribution. Members at the top of the tree (as dictated by the whims of our collective attention, or by the organizational structures of old media reinventing themselves in the social space) express views, highlight information, direct traffic, and otherwise curate the body of data online for their communities. This curatorial role embodies both economic and social power, as derived from the value of collective attention. Social media provides tools to help curate and track this attention economy: trending topics in Twitter, view counts on YouTube, numbers of followers and comments all help to create a sense of emergent structure in the midst of the chaos online. Where the social space really diverges from previous media communication systems is in the speed with which these structures emerge and decay, and in the explicit nature of the feedback loop between the information ecology and the attention economy.
One interesting thing to me here is how knowledge claims attain any authority within these systems. In traditional “old” vertical models of communication there was this illusion that knowledge was originating at the top and being disseminated downward. Someone in authority would make a knowledge claim – a news anchor reporting on corporate corruption; a politician describing an international incident; a teacher explaining the importance of a historical event – and the accepted fantasy was that this authority figure was the source of the information or knowledge that they were providing. Of course this was an illusion: knowledge did not start at the top of the hierarchy, it simply arrived via the top. The same curatorial role that we see played by social networking hubs was played by news agencies, media conglomerates, and political campaigns as they determined what information was important enough to be communicated. The difference was in the amount of transparency surrounding the curatorial process. By obscuring this process, previous media invested their curated information with a stamp of authority: an official seal that declared their information to be sanctioned, vetted, and elevated above and beyond that information which was available elsewhere. Knowledge claims in these systems inherit their authority from their reporters, rather than from evidence in the world. Knowledge, in other words, relied on the illusion of authority.
In the social media space we have a different illusion that allows us to assess knowledge claims: the illusion of transparency. In social networks, transparent citation and attribution have taken the place of opaque authority. If someone tweets that Sarah Palin kicked a puppy dog, the reader should have the ability to backtrack through the sources of this information to a video of Sarah Palin kicking a puppy dog. Of course this type of transparency is an ideal rather than an actuality: in most cases the tissue of citations is fragile, biased, and filled with misinformation. The ability to trace a given knowledge claim back to an observable phenomenon is a luxury often denied to us. (Take this essay as a case-in-point: I have not taken the time to cite or acknowledge most of the sources underlying my thought processes here, partially because reconstructing that trace of influences is beyond me at the moment. As such this writing should be treated as untrustworthy at best. I’ll try to do better as I continue.) In most cases it is very difficult to assess the veracity of information found online. A consequence of the social media space and the attention economy is that attention does not distinguish between “truth” and propaganda: it distinguishes between exciting/funny/interesting/infuriating and boring. Or, as is often the case, it distinguishes between “easy” and “difficult” information. This brings us to the second myth that I’d like to discuss: the myth of victorious truth.
The Myth of Victorious Truth
Mason writes that “…truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.” This a lovely sentiment, but it reeks of a technological-utopianism that tends to overwhelm our reason when discussing social media. Perhaps it is because Mason is British, and not continuously exposed to the rampages of the Tea Party movement in the States that he can make this claim without reservations. Perhaps he did not notice that it wasn’t until the social media was turned off that the real revolutionary actions began to escalate in Egypt (or that it was the return of the social media that encouraged many to return to their homes). These two examples point to two different properties of social media: first that it is as vulnerable to manipulation as any other media, and second that it privileges low-risk political discourse over high-risk political action. This second point was made more convincingly then me in a recent and controversial New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell.
The first point requires further elaboration. Let’s return to Mason’s claim that the truth moves faster than lies. Without making claims about Egypt or Iran, I will simply say that this is certainly not the case in America. In America I’d rank lies as having more staying power than the truth in many circumstances. The last decade has seen a renewed vigor in anti-intellectualism, anti-empiricism, and general skepticism when it comes to scientific forms of knowledge. (two interesting Wired articles on this can be found here and here.) We see this attitude across all levels of society, from the purely political to the personal, to the religious, to the secular. Climate change denial, intelligent design, the anti-vaccination movement, the birther movement, and the Tea Party combine various elements of conspiracy theory, sensationalism, religious fundamentalism, and distrust of science and/or government to create elaborate circles of influence and belief systems that are not necessarily grounded in empirical reality. The fact that these ideas have any traction at all in our culture is at least partially a testament to the ability of their proponents to use social media and propaganda to build movements that are based on fear and ignorance. Social media is content-agnostic: it doesn’t privilege any particular class or category of message. If anything, it makes it easier to spread propaganda by compressing it into simple, easily reproduced packets. Difficult truths are hard to compress down to 140 characters, but a good lie will rip through Twitter like a wildfire through dry brush. This is what I mean when I say that attention distinguishes between easy and difficult: getting at the truth of a matter often requires effort and time. Many truths involve stretching our conceptions of the world and challenging our existing assumptions (more on this below). It is often easier or more comfortable to accept a lie, especially if that lie confirms existing views.
I don’t mean to detract from the impact of social media on revolutionary movements and social organization. The importance of Twitter in the Iranian elections in 2009, for instance, should not be downplayed (see this article about the role of social networks in the Iranian election situation). It isn’t that I don’t see social media as a valuable tool for communication of a message within a group of likeminded individuals. It is a powerful tool for communicating truths that are already agreed upon within a given group, but it does not privilege any particular truth over any other, and it does not distinguish between truth and propaganda: that is what people do. The “truth” is a plastic and malleable phenomenon at the best of times and different cultures or groups have different truths. In the topics listed above, one person’s truth is another person’s propaganda. I think that whatever power social media might have to privilege “the truth” over propaganda operates within the confines of existing worldviews, value systems, generational groups, and levels of education. Truth, in other words, is simply the consensed upon view within a given circle of influence (what James Gee would call a Semiotic Domain). Truth online is other people who agree with you.
Implications and Thoughts
I’m going to step even further away from my critique of Mason’s article and conclude with some thoughts on the implications of these ideas on how we behave within the online social space. This discussion of consensual truth and social circles of influence has now been circling the drain of postmodern crisis for some time, and it is easy to see how embracing this perspective could lead to uncertainty and paralysis. Social media is by no means the source of this crisis of truth and meaning, but it certainly provides an interesting new context for it to express itself. In spite of the infinite overlapping perspectives and worldviews that we encounter online, most of us cultivate a sense of what is and isn’t true that allows us to function in society. These truths are not absolute or universal, nor could they ever be. Instead we arrive at functional truths. Functional truths are truths which are good enough to allow us to take action in the world. This is the challenge and the responsibility that we all undertake when we participate in society, both online and off: to construct a set of functional truths that allow us to negotiate and critically evaluate the many knowledge claims made by the people in our environment. Prior to widespread mass communication, there was little call to pay attention to this responsibility. The social environment of the average person living in a medieval village was limited to the people in the immediate surroundings, and the occasional traveler or outsider. There was no need to distinguish between different conflicting worldviews or truths. As communication media increased in speed and scale, this environment expanded, requiring additional critical thinking skills to define what was and wasn’t true at the individual level. Speaking very generally, the postmodern crisis was enabled by the increased density and speed of communication networks, which undermined our ability to take local truths for granted (apologies, postmodernists and communication theorists, for compressing huge swaths of history and theory into a few pithy sentences).
Put simply, the more views we are exposed to, the harder it is to maintain a belief in a single correct view of the world (read this article from Wired’s Clive Thompson for some provocative thinking on how this happens). So, while social media is not to blame for this situation, it unquestionably the most perfect expression we have seen of the conditions that brought it about. As a result, it is the most challenging communication environment humans have ever had to make sense of, and it is forcing many people who had previously only held local truths to suddenly confront an infinite expanse of contradicting global truths.
This is one reason that we create these ad-hoc hierarchies in the social networking space. By identifying curators and choke points with perspectives that we understand and share, it is possible to lessen the burden of having to individually make sense of each piece of information that we encounter online. Our networks of trust serve a crucial external-cognition function, leaving us more time to watch cat videos on YouTube.
There is a catch, however, to this notion of curated truth, and it’s a big one. By and large, the frame that we bring to bear on a given piece of information is fixed early in life. Once we have internalized a set of biases and perspectives, it is very difficult to overcome them. As a result, the networks of trust that we construct to perform this curatorial role are often very good at reinforcing our existing worldviews, and often very bad at challenging or educating ourselves about other ways of thinking. In scientific research this is known as confirmation bias.
Einstein is attributed with saying “common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” While this may not always be the case, it is true often enough to stand in the way of any real dialogue within the social media space. For the most part, dialogue does not happen online: people broadcast ideas, but they do not consider the ideas of others (there is an interesting Clive Thompson article on Wired.com that discusses how socialization does not scale well online). Ideas that contradict the carefully curated viewpoints that we establish online are vilified and mocked more often than they are considered and integrated into our perspective on the world. Learning how to create a sense of what is and isn’t true online cultivates a certain type of skepticism that is at once a survival trait, and a barrier to incorporating new and challenging ideas. The online social space demands that we build an armor around our ideas, lest we be lost at sea and unable to arrive at functional truths anymore. However, it is this armor that leads to entrenched partisan positions, and a breakdown in the civilized discourse that our culture is founded on. This, then, in my final provocation: I’d argue that the modes of communication that we have been forced to develop online are at least partially responsible for the general unrest and lack of productive discourse that has characterized the American political landscape over the last decade. Discuss.