Is social media fair?

In Power, Weblogs and Inequality (2005)⁠, Shirky argues that the blogosphere can be understood as conforming to power law distributions, which basically means that, if one was to order each blog according to the level of public interest, the amount of interest in each blog declines exponentially for each step further down the list. To some, this observation might seem to be in conflict with the popular belief that social media, and the Internet in general, is democratizing media by empowering elites and non-elites alike with egalitarian access to the same platform, which is well expressed by Shirky’s TED Talk on the matter, available here. However, as I will assert, these seemingly disparate views are not only compatible with each other, but complementary, according to the broader themes of social network analysis.

The revolutionary component of the Internet, according to Shirky’s TED Talk, is that, while previous innovations in communications technologies allowed for either the broadcast of a specific message to a group of people or for one-on-one conversational discussion, the Internet allows for both. An institution can post a press release online for anyone to read, which is similar to publishing it in a book, but then, because the medium is online, individuals are empowered to not only respond to the publisher directly, but to discuss the press release with other members of the audience in discussions that the original publisher might not even be privy to. Prior to this, the basic structure of the media could be understood hierarchically – elites produced information that was reiterated down the pyramid to distributors capable of directly communicating the message to the media consumer. However, when the same media consumers can use the medium to discuss the message, or to broadcast their own message, elites can lose control of the narrative, and the hierarchy starts to flatten.

In a flattening hierarchy the relative power of previously disenfranchised members begins to increase, but, more importantly, their collective power increases as well. Any given individual person with a blog is probably not the most powerful, influential, or insightful news analyst in the world – they might not even be particularly good writers – but, as the small world experiments prove, they are almost certainly connected to a wildly interconnected social network, in which they are located six hops or less to any given media elite, and, indeed, the most influential individuals in the world. Furthermore, if one accepts the argument that increased weak ties are proliferated by the Internet, these distances are presumably diminished even further. In an environment where any individual’s tweet could plausibly appear in the President’s feed, the aggregate opinions of the masses isn’t just a question for academics and pollsters to answer, it is the other half of a feedback loop that increasingly characterizes the relationship between media elites and media consumers – in other words, Joe Schmo’s online take on renegotiating NAFTA is more important than it used to be because, even if Joe’s mother is the only person who will ever read it, it is one of many components of a broad, bottom-up reflection of the media’s narrative, which can only be characterized collectively as critical and oppositional by nature, or else it wouldn’t have been written in the first place.

I think that I disagree with Shirky’s assertions that the imbalances found in power law distributions can be thought of as fair, especially in the domain of interpersonal communications specifically, but I do agree with the assertion that seemingly unimportant people in this hierarchy can have an enormous impact on elites. There is an unanswered question about normativity – just because public forums tend to be imbalanced due to seemingly arbitrary reasons, doesn’t mean that they necessarily ought to be. Likening massive group discourses to typical in-person conversations is, perhaps, an oversimplification, but, oftentimes, it seems that the individuals who consistently dominate these discussions again and again have little substance to offer the collective, while the listeners, the noncredentialed thinkers, the marginalized, and those similarly overlooked individuals are the ones with the most insightful perspectives. Really listening and communicating with one another is hard work, and while this isn’t meant to be a Luddite’s critique of the printing press, I think that, to a certain extent, all of these technologies that are meant to make communication easier give us a false sense of interpersonal mastery – electronic communications seems very capable of increasing the quantity of discussions we have, but ill equipped for increasing the quality of our discussions.

 

Peter Jameson

 

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