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Social Media’s Vicious and Virtuous Loops


In an earlier post, with tongue firmly planted in check, I asked whether there was an app for democracy.  Joseph took my jest and ran with it in Democracy, is there an app for that? Yes, I agree with Joseph, any technology or tool can be used for good or evil depending on the intent of the user.  Social worth is not something (usually) built into technology by design.  What social media does do, by design, is create the possibility for multiple, reinforcing loops of information exchange.  These loops can be vicious or virtuous.  Teenage bullying and recent pro-democracy movements are but two examples of this.

So, if we can’t control “good or evil” uses of social media, what remains to be valued in the spread of these technologies?  In my view, the value still remains in the potential for social media and the web in general to democratize information through technology.  As Joseph points out, information control, amount and direction have gone from the few to the many in a very dramatic way over the past few decades.  But does this mean we creating more intelligent, wiser public decisions?  Often this has not seemed to be the case.

There is a less virtuous loop at play here too as technology enables us to follow the views of those who agree with us and have limited exposure to other views.  Once upon a time, when we had newspapers read by all and fewer media channels, we were regularly exposed to views that might differ.  Once upon a time, the FCC even required broadcasters to provide equal time for opposing views.  But no more.

Real democratic thinking, let alone nation-building, may require new forms of social media literacy.  As communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said more than 30 years ago, “At the speed of light, policies and political parties yield place to charismatic images.”  But how about at the speed of a Tweet, one that is reinforced in ever faster loops?

One Comment leave one →
  1. 2011/02/18 12:35 pm

    How fast will a tweet be with each country having an internet kill switch?
    Your point is a good one, though, and goes into semantic and shannonistic information mechanics with only the former intersecting social constructs. So far, anyway.
    And I suppose this is where having a sense of humor can be helpful; IBM’s Watson probably will never be able to deal with semantic information mechanics and shannonistic information mechanics — to which its silicon based design binds it — will never be as fast at getting the word out…

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