Last week I was a guest on the Robot Overlordz podcast and we spoke about a variety of tech topics, plus my newly launched science fiction novel. In this week's article, I want to pick up on one part of my discussion with the Overlordz: how social media has skewed the public narrative.
What got me started on that rant was, oddly enough, a question about how I've seen technology evolve over my career. I talked about how the democratization of publishing has been the biggest theme on the Internet in my time. In particular, moving from the predominantly brochureware websites in the 1990s (read-only) to the content creation revolution in the early-to-late 2000s (read/write: blogging, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). It was a time of revolutionary, and hugely positive, change on the Web. But then I noted that over the past four or five years, social media has gone the other way: it's been skewing how we create content or communicate. That with social media nowadays, it's not the true person you're seeing. Too often, it's an exaggeration and sometimes even a fake.
Here's the relevant snippet of audio (two and half minutes long) from the Robot Overlordz show:
I mentioned at the end of that audio that there's no greater example of skewing the narrative than Donald Trump. It's no coincidence that Twitter is his biggest microphone, because it enables him to throw all kinds of exaggerations and dubious "facts" into the public sphere. But here's the thing: the rest of us use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even Snapchat, in much the same way. Trump's just better at it than us (he's so great at it, in fact).
Filter Bubbles & PC Culture
I'm not just talking about the common practice of only posting the good things in your life onto social media, or of the constant self-promotion many of us engage in (I'm certainly guilty of that!). I'm also thinking of the way social media has skewed public discourse so badly, that we now live inside filter bubbles and are paranoid of offending anyone within them.
- Look at your Facebook newsfeed. Chances are it either has a stream of anti-Trump posts from your friends, or anti-Clinton posts. Which stream you see depends on a) where you live, and b) how rich or poor your friends and family are. I have noted before that we tend to only hear one side of the story on social media, and are deaf to the other side. Now that's skewed up.
- How many times a week do we see someone ripped to pieces on social media by the hive mind, for being sexist/racist/homophobic/pick any other 'ist' or 'bic'. Whether or not the person deserves it, a kind of mob mentality takes over on social media. The "outrage" that many of us succumb to during these times is usually exaggerated, and sometimes just plain fake.
In my novel Presence, I played with this theme of skewed social media. In the book, the dominant social network of 2051 is a virtual world called Doppel. But there's a conceit behind Doppel: in order for its VR headset to work, your avatar must replicate your physical self. Here's how the main character, Gats (who works for Doppel), describes it:
Simply put, to invoke presence in Doppel’s virtual world, your avatar must resemble your physical self as much as possible. If you’re only five feet tall in the physical world, your avatar must also be five feet. (Ok, you can add an inch, but any more will probably result in presence failure.) If you’re only fifteen years old, you cannot be older. If you’re fifty-five, you cannot be younger. If you’re an amputee inreal, you can’t replace the limb invirt. Needless to say, your avatar cannot be a superhero or a giant rabbit like in the old days of virtual worlds. To be truly present inside Doppel, your brain needs to believe it’s really you in that world.
I made that conceit central to the book partly to riff on the skewed social media of today. I wanted to explore what would happen if you had to be true to yourself in order to use a social network. If you read my novel, you'll see that both good and bad things happen as a result. So I'm not claiming my future scenario is necessarily better than today's flawed social networks. But I hope it makes the reader at least think about alternative approaches.
I can't help but feel that the tools of today's Internet are letting us down. We're about to move from the "mobile first" era to "AI first," as Google put it at a product launch this week (although, ironically, it launched a new mobile phone at the event). The point is: this will be a world where technology is all around us, not just in our pockets.
Yet our content creation and communication tools - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and others - are preventing us from truly engaging with the world around us. We're only engaging with a tiny portion of the world. Primarily, with those who think like us (your Facebook feed), or who shout the loudest (like Trump on Twitter). The public discourse is skewed because of this; and we either need our tool makers to step up and fix it...or we need new tools.
Image credit: Eugene Weekly
Presence, my science fiction novel about the future of VR, is now available on Amazon.