What if social media is actually good for the world? | مركز سمت للدراسات

What if social media is actually good for the world?

Date & time : Tuesday, 19 December 2023

Aaron Dinin

Most public discourse about social media frames it as a sort of cancer on society. But what if, overall, social media – even TikTok – is actually good for the world? What if the anti-social media firebrands are just trying to distract us from what these platforms really do and why they’re so important?

To understand what the people trying to vilify social media are hiding, we have to start by understanding that platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube have one main goal: to keep users engaged.

We can certainly debate the impacts of keeping users engaged – everything from addiction to misinformation – but the goal itself encourages an important sort of neutrality. The platforms don’t care what they show. They care about delivering engaging content to avoid losing market share.

Compare that necessary neutrality with the publishing technologies that came before. Before the digital age, people who wanted to share their ideas with the world mostly published in books, journals, newspapers and other print media. Those technologies are all curated by small groups of people who determine what does and doesn’t get published.

Hopefully you immediately recognize why media platforms curated by small, powerful editorial groups might be a bigger problem than the engagement-focused social media platforms people seem so worried about, but, for the sake of clarity, let’s get explicit:

When a small group of people gatekeep the information that gets distributed to society, it allows that small and powerful group to control, manipulate and influence communities in ways that align with their interests rather than the interests of the broader public.

For centuries, small groups of powerful people have been manipulating who and what gets published. We can find examples as far back as ancient Greece, where political leaders used epic poetry to impose a cultural hegemony around the Aegean peninsula, and we can find examples from Elizabethan England of the British monarchy trying to influence the plays of Shakespeare to manipulate public sentiment.

Simply put, popular media technologies from every civilization have always impacted what people believe about their worlds, and controlling media has always been (and will always be) a way of exerting power. As a result, when new technologies distribute control of media to more people, they disrupt power and create a bit of public chaos while people adjust. Social media isn’t the first new publishing technology to cause this kind of chaos. For proof, you might ask the Catholic Church how it felt about the printing press after Martin Luther published the pamphlets that catalyzed the protestant reformation.

We’re currently experiencing a similar kind of challenge to our established power structures during what are, historically speaking, the earliest days of digital media. Social media platforms aren’t a cancer on society. We’ve just never lived in a world where so many people could so easily share their ideas and beliefs. Now that TikTok, and other platforms like it, are disrupting a status quo that gave a relatively small number of people massive control over what opinions got shared with the world, we should expect some conflict between the people who used to control information and the people who have new ways of being heard.

Personally, the old status quo scares me more than a world in which lots of people have ways to publicly express their opinions. After all, we live in a country that fundamentally believes in the importance of protecting people’s rights to differing opinions. While I realize encountering those conflicting opinions creates uncomfortable moments, banning things – even entire platforms – just because we don’t agree with them is one of the least American things we can do. Instead, we need to adjust to a world with a lot more voices participating in public discourse.

By the way, like it or not, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The people who’ve lived through every major shift in publishing and communications technologies often view them as chaotic. But new generations are constantly being born who don’t remember any of the old ways, and they simply accept the world for how it is rather than how it once was.

In other words, what we’re experiencing with social media platforms like TikTok isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s an ancient phenomenon being revisited across a new series of technologies at an amazing level of public scale. Our newest media technologies allow millions of people to share their opinions and decide what opinions become popular.

To be clear, it’s by no means a perfect system. How could anything that impacts billions of people not have problems? But it’s exponentially more inclusive than every system that’s ever come before it, and that seems like a good thing. Rather than demonize platforms that enable such incredible inclusivity, let’s embrace them while doing more to educate users about posting on social media in productive and positive ways.

Source: The Hill



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