Empowered citizens or Digital dairy cows: Notes on a lecture

The purpose of today’s lecture was to familiarize the audience with social media and what they may need to know about it. The lecture began with examples of what the media reports when social media is mentioned. The interesting thing is that media today has turned from the previously optimistic position to being more openly critical. To exemplify this I used three recent examples from Swedish media where the papers reported that research showed: smart phones make us selfish, Facebook spreads unhappiness & the need to be connected causes insomnia among young people.

Generally speaking the extremes of the debate either view social media as revolutionary (and fundamental for the Arab spring) or trivial. Defining the Arab spring as a Facebook revolution degrades the pain, suffering and efforts of the individuals doing the work. My example of the trivial is a response from an older professor when he heard I was working on an article on Twitter:

“Twitter? Isn’t that where everyone talks about what they had for breakfast?” Just as with the revolutionary view of social media this may have a grain of truth. Social media can be used for trivial conversation but it would be incorrect to see social media as only trivial. It may also be important to remember that most conversation is trivial. Trivial conversation is what creates and maintains social relations.

The approaches to social media belong to a longer tradition of techno-optimism and pessimism. My examples of optimism are a quote from Wikipedia:

Social media…At its most basic sense, social media is a shift in how people discover, read and share news, information and content. It’s a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologues (one to many) into dialogues (many to many) and is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. (Wikipedia, May 2009)

What does “the democratization of information” even mean? My second optimism example is Time Magazine’s choice of YOU as person of the year in 2006.

My choice of pessimists were a quote from Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture” (2007)

“Out of this anarchy… what was governing the infinite monkeys now inputting away on the Internet was the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated.”

Say what you like about Keen, but he is extremely clear about his position. The second pessimist quote is from Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield:

“My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.”

From here the lecture moved on to the developments to what led to social media decade and the changes our new toys have caused. Naturally there are profound changes occurring all around us but the small stuff is fun to note.

The Wordfeud app is an interesting example. A couple of years ago admitting of regularly playing Scrabble may have been a form of social suicide – today things have changed and we happily boast of a high score. Similarly, a few years ago looking at pictures of your friends, enemies and other loose ties would have been voyeurism and maybe borderline stalking – today it’s just Facebook. Our use of technology has normalized abnormal behavior.

Our connectivity and our toys have also diminished our need for boredom – a feeling that may have filled an important purpose. I have written about Boredom as source of creativity earlier.

At this point the lecture moved on to some important points about what technology can do. Beginning with my favorite example of the Tokyo park bench read it here.

When we look at the effects of social media the most important point to begin with is the seminal quote by blue_beetle

If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold

I like this quote but I have always felt that there was something missing. We are not really the product – we are the creators of the product, which is data. We are digital dairy cows and the product is digital milk.

A social change caused by social media is our relationship with our contacts. We are the stars in our own performance attempting to present our ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. We document our lives for the entertainment of others – or maybe for the creation of the image of a more exciting life. As an example I showed my coffee project (a mix of entertainment, amusement & sadism – to be explained in a later blogpost).

In order to understand more about what we are doing it is good to know what the controllers of the infrastructure think about. It is important to understand the digital dairy farmers.

One of the main players is Mark Zuckerberg and his position on “radical transparency”

“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”

There are several things wrong with this position (not even focusing on the fact that his company profits from this position). According to Zuckerberg the days may be coming to an end (which I seriously doubt) but what to do now? The media is full of examples where individuals have been punished (socially or economically or more) for information that may not have been illegal or even immoral.

In addition to this Zuckerberg has claimed that privacy is no longer a social norm. Additionally, Zuckerberg’s goal seems to create a personalized view of the world (check out Pariser’s Filter Bubble or some stuff on personalization I wrote here). In Zuckerberg’s own chilling words:

A Squirrel Dying In Your Front Yard May Be More Relevant To Your Interests Right Now Than People Dying In Africa.

It is worrying that Zuckerberg is profiting from pushing these positions at the same time as he develops a technology that promotes excessive sharing and profits from the same.

So if social media is not going to show social responsibility, then who will fix this problem?

Usually we turn to the law. However the law is all focused on concerns with Orwell’s view of surveillance via Big Brother. But today we are the ones giving away our information for the sake of convenience and entertainment – we are in the controlled world of Huxley’s Brave New World (check out the Orwell/Huxley paradox here).

So we are left to our own devices – in more ways than one. What can we expect of the future? First we will see an increased efficiency in personalization (as I have written earlier):

The same is true of information. The sweet and fatty information in a long historical context was an understanding of who was allied with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? And whom can I get my genes over to the next generation (obviously just a nicer way of thinking about getting laid!). This is why we today have a fascination about gossip. Which minor celebs are attempting to sleep with each other takes up an extraordinary part of our lives. But this was all ok since the access to gossip was limited. Today, however, we are connected to the largest gossip engine ever conceived. Facebook may try to hide it in its spin, but part of our fascination is all about looking at each other. The problem is that there is only a limited amount of time in life and spending too much time on gossip limits our ability for more relevant information. We are becoming information obese and the solution is to decrease fatty information intake and go to the information gym regularly.

The development of walled gardens or information silos… Facebook (and other silos) is branding us like the cattle we are. By attempting to lock our behavior into their site and prevent us from leaving they are diminishing our freedom – a freedom which was originally created in the design of the Internet and is being subverted by the growth of social media (Read Long Live the Web by Tim Berners-Lee).

We are not going to be helped from our locked stalls by either law or corporations. We are left to practice thoughtful self-restraint and hope that the law will eventually catch up with our technology and needs.

The slides I used are here.

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