Sunday, 26 August 2012

I'm not sure social media do 'nuance'...


How on earth can we include uncertainty, conditionality and nuance in an instant gratification medium built around popping 140 characters into a box on the Internet? Twitter isn’t an equivocal medium, it is a place for the definite, the certain.

Even those who have managed to order the system so as to create doubt and an open-ness to other positions cannot buck the medium. The reader – or most of the readers – arrive perceiving twitter as a place of absolute certainty: “god is dead”, “abortion is wrong”, “Tories are scum”, “Arsenal are shit”. A veritable cacophony of conviction, a place where “I’m not so sure about that can you explain” doesn’t really have a place.

This soup of competing but equally unconditional truths worried some folk. Here’s Peter Beaumont writing in The Guardian:

Because of the measures of success in the new online world, including how many comments are attracted and the number of page views, it has been inevitable, some argue, that the loudest and most partisan voices seem attractive. Which leaves a burning question unanswered. How to quantify what all this means for those engaging in public debate, including bloggers, writers, journalists and commenters.

Part of Patrick Ness's argument was that the often brutal nature of the online world has started to impose a culture of self-censorship as some have sought to avoid inevitable flame wars. Other writers have remarked the opposite to me, describing how, in reviewing his writing, he had gradually used fewer qualification in his arguments.

We see here two competing responses: “I don’t like the game in that sandpit, so I’m not going to play there any more” and “I don’t like the game in that sandpit but everyone I want to play with is there so here goes”. Both are correct but define the person – there is no requirement to ping out tweets all the live long day, to record every last second of your life on Facebook or to scribe angry little pieces on a blog read by seventy people (on a good day). Yet in the discourse about the Internet – or more specifically the social aspect of the Internet – no-one states the obvious: you don’t have to be there.

At the same time, we should be able to distinguish between styles of communication and how places (if we can truly call Twitter and so forth: ‘places’) change the nature of our speech. The way I talk to a bunch of mates down the pub will be very different from the manner in which we talk at work. How often have friends and family rung you at work and been surprised by your ‘posh work voice’? And have you ever been shocked at bad language from someone (like a teacher or local councillor) you’ve only ever heard in a formal context?

Places like twitter are growing up as the users get to understand them. The etiquette, the behaviours and the language evolve. Not from some heavy-handed set of rules but from the manner in which that community polices its own behaviour and defines its own boundaries. Indeed, when heavy-handed rules crash into social media we get the nonsense of the ‘twitter joke trial’ or the lunacy of arresting some kid because he offended a celebrity.

The other part of Peter Beaumont’s worry is equally confused – sectarianism. By this he means, I guess, the tendency of humans to cluster into idea-reinforcing and like-minded groups rather than Orange Order marches or Glaswegian football violence. Beaumont suggests – in referring to the work of US academic, Cass Sunstein:

...while the internet was efficient in bringing together virtual communities of interest, it also encouraged participants "to isolate themselves from competing views... [creating a] breeding ground for polarisation, potentially dangerous for both democracy and social peace".

In other words, virtual communities, unlike physical communities that are under constant pressure to compromise, are at risk of a tendency to organise around confirmatory bias.

It seems to me that this is perfectly normal human behaviour. For sure, the Internet provides more opportunities for that ‘confirmatory bias’ but we have always sought out places and things that confirm our position, that affirm our world view. Perhaps the liberation lies in the fact that a young conservative in Grimethorpe (there may be one) or the budding Marxist in Steppingley can engage with respectively other young Tories and emerging Marxists. The assumption that on-line engagement means a new universalist idea evolving from some primeval internet soup may indeed appeal but surely it is nonsense?

Finally – and this really is important – there are more people on-line who prefer chatting about the X-Factor, football or the simple minutiae of an ordinary life. Perhaps Beaumont’s assumption that on-line activity is all about politics and media is simply his own form of confirmation bias?  While there was plenty of robust debate around Julian Assange on assorted social media channels, I’m prepared to bet that there were more pictures of cute puppies and kittens posted on various social media sites than coruscatingly insightful remarks about wikileaks. And this is how the world should be.


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