Social media is proving to be less and less effective at delivering across important messages in an increasingly complex world. The trend towards more digestible but, as a consequence, less substantial content shared on social media started back in the mid- to late-2000s when “microblogging” sites like Twitter started ramping up in popularity. As more users got their information from tweets, plurks, snaps, and memes, so too did “virality” become paramount over substance and depth. That’s a really big problem because a more complex world demands more smarts in the people expected to navigate it.
Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. For example, elections have been won and lost on the bases of what went “viral” or what “trended” on social media. All partisan camps lament this new reality as, clearly, no one party or political camp is unique in recognising that dumbed-down political messaging has been squarely meeting the minds of equally dumbed-down voters thanks to social media. By design, most social media apps enforce emphasis on virality over substance. Users determine the value of a tweet, post, or snap on the basis of how many retweets, likes, and shares these garner.
The trouble with this is that popularity scores are poor measures of how good or bad something is. Democracy had proven this fact about popularly-elected politicians. Now social media is proving this fact about information too. Both democracy and social media are based on the notion that “crowdsourcing” and the “people’s will” necessarily yield wisdom. But, really, crowdsourcing — and elections — are just fancy terms for popularity contests.
Social media in its current form will therefore never be a solution to the problem of popular low-substance content dominating the Net at the expense of unpopular but high-substance information. As far as can be observed, there is no mechanism within most social media sites to score content on the basis of substance and quality. Without such scoring mechanisms — and metrics out of these that are as appealing to users as number of likes and retweets — substance, validity, and quality will never win against popularity on social media.
Popularity used as a primary reward in social media is, in essence, profoundly unethical. It was in the 2010s that this confronting reality about social media had revealed itself and it is this revelation that will go down in history as a key defining characteristic of that decade. This was the decade that saw the demise of the once-lofty notion of “social media for social good”. That term has now become an oxymoron.
The challenge for the new decade is to replace traditional social media with networks that work on a more ethical content scoring mechanism — one that rewards substance, validity, and quality. One need look no further than, say, blogging. Blog posts demand a lot more of their authors — like structure, comprehensiveness, range, and depth. It also encourages relatively substantial forms of engagement — like commenting. More importantly, back in the golden age of intelligent digital discourse when blogging ruled as the de facto medium of choice for online debate, a blogger’s worth was also determined by how many others in their community linked back to their work. This is good news because we need not wait for new technology for this fundamental shift to happen.
Indeed, traditional social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram need not go. They just should be regarded as no more than the digital playgrounds that they actually are and not platforms for discussing important topics that demand intelligence in their participants. If we are to seriously aspire for a future where better more sound thinking rules over the easy and the popular as input into important decisions, we should seriously consider the ethics behind the premium we continue to put on the popular, the viral and the trending. This is the challenge as we enter the new decade — one that follows a decade that revealed the ill effects of social media in its traditional form.
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