4 thoughts on “Social media is enhancing democracy”

  1. For those who are able to take part in “social media,” sure… and depending on what one defines “social media” to be. Given the ongoing balkanized nature of “social media” “networks”, how much opportunity for exposure, let alone discourse, is lost because some people won’t or can’t take part in the “network” of choice? Even if we discount those who aren’t participating in a given dominant “network,” the topology of any sufficiently large network (social or otherwise) won’t be uniform… it’ll be messy and partitioned. Some nodes will be heavily engaged, some really won’t be. And this is to say nothing of the filter bubble problem, both silently impressed upon us by the tools most of us use, and sought after due to the comfort of an echo chamber. Haters gonna hate, regardless of their underlying connectedness.

    Somewhat related: http://blog.pinboard.in/2011/11/the_social_graph_is_neither/.

    I’d instead posit that “social media” hasn’t changed the game, nor how the players play it; rather, it has in some ways amplified certain players and certain characteristics. Memes existed long before the internet. But now, memes can spread across the planet in minutes, rather than months or years. But memes are still memes. Folks’ll be philosophical/mindful/conscientous or not, whether or not they’re plugged into the evovling global corpous.

    If anything, I’d say that, in the case of this most recent election, it’s a combination of the last decade’s goings on, and a certain administration’s masterfully blanketing campaign (of which “social media” was a non-trivial but hardly dominant portion) that generated the engagement we’ve seen.

    But as for “philosophical” or any of the other words I’m going out on a limb and overloading the term with, I remain sadened and pessimistic. I’d say the quality of discourse in my own circles has risen, but I’d more attribute it the company I keep, the filters I’ve put in place to keep out noise, and my own growth and evolution. Doing my best to account for my own perceptual shift, I’d have to say that most discourse is as superficial and uselessly vacuous as it was pre-“social media”. There’s just more of it that we can actually see.

    1. Well-said. In particular, this:

      > I’d have to say that most discourse is as superficial and uselessly vacuous as it was pre-“social media”. There’s just more of it that we can actually see.

      My theory is based 100% on this.

      I’d go just a bit further: There’s not only more of it we can actually see, there’s also more of it, period, because of the ease of conversing with all of your “friends” simultaneously. This election week, I’ve seen many people (on BookFace especially) betray almost a sense of obligation to weigh in — evidenced by phrases like “Well okay, here’s what I think”, or “I don’t usually talk about politics here, but here’s a thought [followed by many paragraphs].” There’s a sort of critical mass / snowball effect of BookFace’s population seeing that this is what (nearly, literally) *everyone* is talking about. That compels them to articulate their own views, and share them more widely than ever.

      And, actually, whether the discourse is vacuous or not is I think beside the point, if not slightly wrong. I expect, because I’m an optimist, or simply because in my experience people do tend to grow, that more conversation happening more openly with more people must lead to an exchange of higher quality ideas.

      Separately, there are also lowered barriers to debating people you disagree with, and that’s playing out in comment threads. But, that’s a separate topic (or four).

      1. Engaged then, I buy that. There is certainly something to be said that “media” is becoming more social in a read/write sense, rather than being a read-only broadcast and congregation point.

        Philosophical though? I don’t know. Maybe my bar has raised itself too high.

        > more conversation happening more openly with more people must lead to an exchange of higher quality ideas.

        I very much share your hope for this, and also firmly believe that more conversation and more/better access to information (with verifiable sources!) is a fundamental requirement of this. The counterpoint to this is that more discussion and buzz does not intrinsically beget this expanded intellectualism that we pine for. Most people don’t like being uncomfortable, so we build a world around ourselves that makes us comfortable… and there’s our self-imposed echo chamber. This can be overcome, sure, but how many will welcome discomfort and truly diverse, dissenting voices in these spaces? And then the more sinister version of this is the echo-chamber that is silently pushed on us. How easy is it to force Facebook to show you _everything_ in your stream, including the stuff their “anti-noise” algorithms hide on your behalf? How many people log out of their Google accounts anymore, and see unbiased search results?

        I’d also consider the absolute volume of “good idea” exchange is less relevant and interesting than the ratio of “good” to “bad” ideas. “Signtal to noise” and all that. And methods of reliably sifting the “good” out of the sea of “bad” as well. For example, take the Stack Exchange network. The size of any given community of theirs isn’t honestly terribly impressive… what’s interesting is the _quality_ of the communities they’ve attracted, and the rules of the games that foster them, and that tease out more and better “good” answers relative to the total traffic compared to previous attempts at the same.

        It kind of feels like I’m being an @EvgenyMorozov to your @JeffJarvis here.

  2. As a more positive and optimistic follow-up, here’s what I think would make your theory be realized: a meaningful coupling of “social media” and the governing processes.

    We can talk all we want, be “engaged” all we want, but it doesn’t matter unless we’re able to put meaningful feedback in front of those in power, and force them to acknowledge receipt of said feedback. Otherwise, it’s all just newer wasy of more easily writing crappy “letters to the editor” that’ll be ignored and/or lost in the pile of mail bags.

    Mining and aggregation of “social media” that ThinkUp tries to do will help. The rise of The Statistician and the defeat of The Pundit’s Imaginary Numbers & Feelings will help, and aggregate polling data will ever more become a thing worthy of note. And most importantly, campaign finance reform that forcibly separates money from weight of voice, and legislative process that decouples discrete issues that have no business being bundled together… these will clean up a hell of a lot of noise and lower the bar for engaging in intellectual discourse in our body politic. Then we’ll see our digital interconnectedness give rise to an effective Consensus (in the Peter F. Hamilton proper noun’s sense), instead of the disturbing pre-shadow of Idiocracy that most of the country is still quite gripped by.

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