As we shift from a market-dominated to a network-dominated society, we do not lose our previous tribal, institutional, and market organizational forms. However, their relationships between each other changes. For example, print-based media now operate at electric speed increasing the urge to feel immediate outrage for events not directly connected to us. Short-form social media writing platforms like Twitter push the printed word to its limit and in so doing, reverse it to a new form of orality. A tweet is ephemeral and soon forgotten, like a quick spoken comment.
Social media can extend the emotion of our words, while obsolescing the linearity of long-form writing. They can retrieve the immediacy of oral communication, with the caution that this can quickly reverse into constant outrage. This is a danger when our existing institutions have lost much of their authority with the public.
“When the prevailing mood is anti-elite and anti-authority, trust in big institutions, including the media, begins to crumble.” —Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief Guardian News & Media
Understanding the effects of pervasive networks like social media is an essential literacy today. Each citizen has to be informed through active engagement in a digitally-mediated society. Unconsciously we do not trust experts, so we have to consciously develop expert networks that we do trust. This requires effort, such as the discipline of personal knowledge mastery. In the long run our networks can make our sense-making much easier. Without personal knowledge networks, we are at the whim of whatever current outrage is flowing through the social media platforms.
“Maybe your friends and family aren’t experts … but they surely have your best interests at heart, and that it why they are nearly as trusted on this topic as scientists, despite their lack of expertise.
So here we have a partial answer to why experts aren’t trusted. They aren’t trusted by people who feel alienated from them. My reading of this study would be that it isn’t that we live in a ‘post-fact’ political climate. Rather it is that attempts to take facts out of their social context won’t work.” —Tom Stafford
We trust people we know. We can get to know people through social media, if we listen and take the time. B.J. May experienced “Twitter as a way to understand viewpoints that diverge from your own”. In ‘How 26 Tweets Broke My Filter Bubble’, May wrote how he was able to see a world beyond a workplace that he described as, “All men, all heterosexual, all white”. He decided to follow Marco Rogers’ advice to use “Twitter as a way to understand viewpoints that diverge from your own”. At the end of this experiment, which turned into a permanent practice, May concluded:
“Every one of my opinions on the issues at hand had been challenged, and most had shifted or matured in some way. More importantly, however, was this: The exercise had taught me how to approach a contrary opinion with patience and respect, with curiosity and an intent to learn, with kindness and humanity.” B.J. May
For the most part, our close-knit social groups cannot give us the diversity of knowledge we need to navigate the complexities of our networked world. Simple solutions, or those that comfort our emotions, will fail us. Generally, we do not trust our established institutions. But complex challenges such as climate change and terrorism will continue to confront us. This is a challenge for each of us. Tobias Stone observes that most people live in a time bubble, not seeing the historical connections that influence society today.
1. They are only looking at the present, not the past or future
2. They are only looking immediately around them, not at how events connect globally
3. Most people don’t read, think, challenge, or hear opposing views
So what can we do? Citizens need to step up. Individuals connected through active and engaged social networks are the only force for positive change in our society. The networked citizen requires not just ‘digital’ skills, but empathy for others, cultivated through trusting relationships. We can only understand people by engaging with them. Social media give us the chance to connect. It is up to each and every one of us to do so. Anything less means a reversal into a tribal society, manipulated by inadequately prepared institutions and market forces intent on pushing platform capitalism. We are the media. We need to realize it.