Social Media “Ripping Society Apart”

I posted a holding post last month when Sean Parker – founding president of Facebook – publicised his concerns at the monster they had created and linked to a few other sources I’d gathered.

I see in the last couple of days Chamath Palihapitiya a former VP of Facebook added fuel to that same fire.

I’ve said it before, free expression is fine, but progress requires proper dialogue and that requires both attention and respect. Saddest aspect for me, is that many decent people who intuitively understand that, and are actively campaigning for human good, also fall foul of social media misuse. Below is an anonymised (false name) piece I sent privately to a friend in public science just two days before I posted the Sean Parker story:

Social Media Bollox:
Social media spreads mostly total bollox when it comes to public science.

Take my mate Joey.
He’s an engineer like myself, so his understanding of physical science (and human ingenuity, incidentally – that’s engineering) is surely well above your average Joe?

He also cares and is committed to the improvement of public understanding of science especially in how it affects society through politics and media. On that score he’s probably in the top 0.01% of the population. Despite being busy with actual domestic and professional responsibilities and travel, he nevertheless runs and participates in multiple groups in multiple physical locations as well as social-media sites often posting links to new articles and events late into the small hours. Hard to imagine greater care for and commitment to the issues.

Top man.
Yet, being busy across multiple commitments, when he does post something, we get the initial click-bait headline with maybe an initial observation or question, real or rhetorical, positive or negative.
Has he had time to read and digest the actual piece? We don’t know.
Was his initial observation or question considered in that light? We don’t know.
Has he noticed if any of his audience has responded, with their own observations and do we know if they actually read and considered the piece and his initial comment? Has he noticed that his real questions were answered, and/or additional links & references provided? Neither he nor we know.

Let’s be generous,
say in his busy schedule he spent an hour noticing and linking (say) four articles and events and posting their links with initial comments to (say) two different sites / threads. So, for any given 24 hours, what is sitting on the public web are (say) 8 instances of a click-bait headline each with a brief comment representing maybe a total of 8 minutes consideration. 99.5% of the web content, including the content he/we’ve contributed, is of this quality – bollox for short.

It is this bollox that 99.5% of passing browsers see 24/7, and give a few moments consideration to. It is this bollox that registers or conflicts with our existing mental models (memes) – more memes reinforcing or reinforcing their clash with other memes. Any subtle, creative, progressive content is crowded out by this domination.

It’s not that Joey doesn’t know or care enough.
It’s that posting web content without expressing initial careful considerations, or without constructive dialogue to some shareable points of new agreement or hold-point from which to continue, adds no value AND fuels prejudiced positions. Social media timelines and threads are ephemeral, if you haven’t time for the necessary dialogue when posting in real time it won’t happen, you won’t pick-up the thread, so don’t do it. The clue is in the name social. If you want correspondence-paced dialogue use mail / email or dedicated moderated sites.

No proper dialogue, no actual knowledge.
Social media spreads mostly total bollox when it comes to public science, unless in the context of real caring inter-human dialogue, no matter how good or well-intentioned the original poster.

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Previous post:
The memetic free-for all – even when fun – is seriously damaging all our interests.

And: The feature that social media channels concentrate “not necessarily good” stuff in ways that should disturb us. James Bridle on “Something is Wrong on the Internet”. Clever meme in itself.

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Post note:

The idea that memes have a life of their own beyond our “conscious” intelligence is clearly a “selfish meme” idea borrowed from Dawkins  via Dennett. It’s been central to my thinking on the evolution of human understanding since I started this mullarky with the interest driven by the web acceleration of the idea as communications are ever more electronic media enabled with fewer “real” dialogues. Basically,  the faster and more numerous our interactions without reflective conversation,  the more intensely degenerate the knowledge being propagated. It’s not a new concern, printing and telephone before email, forums and social media all caused similar “conservative” resistance to new media. No, what’s new is the pace and intensity of the effect. The web is making us dumber. We are ever more at the mercy of memes that reflect received wisdom, ideas that reinforce prejudices. It takes additional conscious effort to makes space for the reflective dialogue needed to assess new information on its actual merits. Knowing banter is no substitute for the real thing.

Gratifying here is the confirmation of the depth and extent of the real problem in play. Now we have not only the founding president and a VP of Facebook and the founder of the web itself voicing the same concern above, but I can now add Sanger, the primary editorial authority of Wikipedia, resigning over this issue of the unrecognised degeneracy of web-mediated knowledge.

Ironically in Sanger’s case is that one of his example cases is scientific establishment knee-jerk negative reaction to “intelligent design” science coming out of Discovery Institute and Templeton funded sources, prejudiced by reaction to the source, rather than by the content. Sure, these are people with theistic religious motivated agendas, but their science stands or falls as science on it’s own merits. It is central to my own agenda for “keeping science and (atheistic) humanism honest”.

Wake up peeps, and make space for honest dialogue, especially with those with whom you naturally disagree or agree on important issues. No need to take my word for it.


Also published on Medium.

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