Who’s the Revolution?

by Ry Beville

Last year, we ran an article on the death of print media. Thankfully, it hasn’t died. Although newspapers continue to struggle, a number of major magazines in the U.S. recently ran a joint campaign in which they championed print culture. They noted that magazine readership is actually growing among young adults. The way people discover new magazines, however, is the internet. Perhaps the increasing use of mobile devices won’t toll the death knell of print culture. But the internet and these devices are enabling a much more pernicious trend that may be the death of, well, just about everything good.

Pundits inevitably say the same thing about social networking sites (SNS) that they did—and still do—about the internet. “It’s not inherently bad or good; it’s how it’s used.” Social networking is permeating people’s lives, though, in much more profound ways than web surfing. The operators of these sites—Facebook, Twitter, Mixi, MySpace and others—will have greater control over information flow, public opinion and, frighteningly, even human behavior.

Stories abound of SNS being put to good use. Old friends reconnect. Independent bands promote themselves. Talented individuals find opportunity. Politicians like Obama have effectively used SNS to rally voters. Famously, Twitter disseminated ‘news’ about the shooting death of a young Iranian woman during the election riots in Iran last year. It looked for a while as if we had a revolution on our hands, and that Twitter was partially driving it. No wonder authoritarian countries ban access to such sites.

On the other hand, we are one year older, one year thicker into SNS, and nothing has changed in Iran. The riots seem largely forgotten (perhaps Twitter does dull attention spans) and Iran continues down the path of uranium enrichment. Psychologists even warned that the brevity of Twitter messages prevent people from fully processing the emotional impact of traumatic news. Twitter may just dull our emotions as well.

This is consistent with the message of critics that SNS are making us less human. They are, ironically, making us disconnected. They are supplanting traditional human relationships. They simplify too much. Personal taste is a “like” or “recommend” button. Friendship is just a click away.

So is social influence. Now that people increasingly depend on SNS, corporate entities are devising clever ways to exploit them. Some businesses are exclusively using SNS for marketing and advertising (much to the detriment of print media). Sophisticated companies are building incentives into SNS. A simple example might be giving someone free admission to an event if they invite enough people online. Studies show that people trust what their ‘friends’ like and do, and already marketers are working closely with SNS to more subtly fuse capitalism into the equation and bend your powers of influence to their gain. Games built on SNS look likely to explode in popularity, and these will inevitably involve structures that influence behavior, too. If people are indeed losing their discriminating abilities and critical perceptions, then their actions may be even more governed by SNS.

In another alarming trend, news agencies are adopting aspects of SNS. Web users can send links of articles to various SNS, and readers can recommend them, with the most highly recommended articles appearing visibly at the top of a list. This makes sense because readers decide what is newsworthy. The option to leave a comment is intended to encourage a debate around the topic, but the comment boards are a morass of shouting and spamming. The notion that “locals know best” has convinced some news organizations, like CNN, to recruit local i-reporters. Many, if not most, of these people have no professional training in news gathering and reporting, resulting in skewed ‘news’ or interview subjects having taken advantage of the reporters. We also don’t know if these i-reporters received any incentives from locals for the topics they report. News is always biased, but this is approaching reckless. When these reports are spread via SNS, disinformation spreads. Or rumor, which can go viral.

Reports that American comedian Bill Cosby had died spread quickly via Twitter recently but it was all a hoax. What happens if (when) the rumor is much more sensitive, involving race or religion? A witch-hunt will erupt. Minorities have been slaughtered in countries around the world in the 20th century, fueled largely by hate and rumor. If SNS sites not only spread word, but also influence, or even encourage, certain behaviors, then the potential for a violent calamity most certainly exists. We only have to look as far as terrorist organizations using SNS for recruiting as proof of this.

At a recent concert for the popular jam band Albatrus, vocalist Miyake Yohei mentioned his interest in Twitter during a song interlude. It was a moment of disjunction because in one song he sings (in English), “The revolution will not be televised because you are the revolution.” The line is an affirmation of human connection and individual importance in a song with the same message. We once thought TV controlled our thoughts. Now it might be SNS. Individuals can still be the revolution, using SNS and its games to drive positive social change, rather than being used, driven and changed by it. It will require a greater awareness of the place of SNS in our lives and hopefully more transparent systems, too. Otherwise, one day the revolution will be downloaded into embedded chips in our heads, and the message will be, “Your free-will is obsolete. You are not even you anymore. You are ours.”










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