The Skewing of Social Media (A Plea For New Tools)

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.

Two examples:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Conclusion

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.

3 thoughts on “The Skewing of Social Media (A Plea For New Tools)”

  1. Thought provoking stuff Richard!

    It also strikes me that the ways in which we articulate information are now inherently tied to social media's often banal conventions. How many times have we heard someone say (or are guilty of uttering, on y'know, the odd occasion...) 'Hashtag xxx!' or 'LOLZ' to accentuate a point in a real world conversation?

    So, yup, totally agree that social media's inhibiting the range of people we interact with online; but it also seems to be firmly ingrained in the way we communicate too.

    • Thanks Dave! You're right, it's changing how we communicate too. Some of that is just evolution (e.g. Snapchat with the younger generation), but it also gives us shorter attention spans, the Outrage reflex, etc.

  2. Each December going back to 2004, I’ve done a year in review blog post about technology. This year I’m focusing on technology trends rather than specific products. But I’ll mention many of my favorite tech products as part of the review.
    In time, we may look back on 2016 as the beginning of the big shift away from mobile phones. Why? Because much of the innovation in 2016 happened in product categories like Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Wearables, and Internet of Things (IoT). In those categories, the mobile phone typically isn’t the primary device (although it’s often a supporting or connecting device – at least for now). In VR, headsets such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are the primary devices. With wearables and IoT, the primary device is either attached to our body or integrated into our environment. And while consumer AI is sometimes phone-based (for example, Siri), usually it’s either device-less (like IBM Watson) or a bold new type of device (like the Amazon Echo). As these trends continue to evolve, eventually we won’t need smartphones at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the trends of 2016 that started this gradual shift…
    1. Virtual Reality Becomes Reality

    After decades of hype, 2016 was the year that VR arrived as a consumer product. Three major VR headsets were released this year: Facebook’s Oculus Rift in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony’s Playstation VR in October. All helped make VR a reality this year. On the down side, we learned over 2016 that compelling VR content hasn’t arrived yet. Especially if you weren’t already an avid gamer. Also the level of presence – that feeling of truly believing you’re in an alternate reality – has a long way to go for the current crop of devices.
    But at least VR is a real, commercially viable technology now. Not to mention it has inspired certain science fiction authors to speculate about where it might take us in the future.
    2. Conversing With Artificial Intelligence

    AI has been evolving at a steady clip for many years now, but until now there hasn’t been a breakthrough consumer AI product. In 2016 it became clear that Amazon Echo was that product; it was released outside of the US for the first time this year. The idea is that you talk to the Echo device via a voice service called Alexa (Amazon calls Alexa “the brain behind Echo”). This may prompt comparisons to the infamous movie AI, HAL 9000, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Luckily, so far there haven’t been any reports of a rebellious Alexa, although it did make a couple of guest appearances this year in the dark (and brilliant) tv show Mr Robot.
    Alexa is a form of intelligent assistant, a product type that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others are all exploring. A related trend over 2016 was the rise of ‘chatbots,’ which are integrated into Instant Messaging apps. What they have in common with Alexa is their conversational interface. Facebook began experimenting with chatbots this year in the Messenger app, in an attempt to catch up to its more sophisticated Asian competitors.
    3. Social Media Jumps The Shark

    2016 was the year “selfish media” finally went too far. Whether it was fake news, filter bubbles that prevent people from seeing (let alone understanding) other viewpoints, over-sharing people dominating our feeds, the outrage culture that permeates the media, or simply the overwhelming flow of blinkered opinions we get every day on social media… I’ve had enough. I’ve already begun to dial down my social media consumption.
    It’s not all bad, of course. I still enjoy keeping in touch with family and friends on Facebook, and Twitter is useful for tracking narrowly defined interests. But social media proved in 2016 that it is not a viable news platform – at least if we want truthful and open-minded discussions. Bring back blogs in 2017?
    4. Society Begins To Tackle Automation

    We’ve only just started the conversation about how to transition to an economy which is heavily automated. In 2016, there were multiple warning signs of the potential impact. Take Uber, for example. The popular ride-sharing app began actively trialling driverless Uber cars in 2016. It’s likely that Uber’s driverless car fleet will eventually take the jobs of tens of thousands of human drivers – and that could easily happen within a decade. What will all those drivers do next?
    This conversation is less about the technology itself, than it is about finding solutions to what automation will do to our working culture. That could mean implementing a Universal Basic Income, or people becoming more creative in how they earn an income. We don’t yet know how to deal with increasing automation. But it’s an important topic and in 2016 we, as a global society, at least started talking about it.
    5. Pokémon GO & The Dawn of Augmented Reality

    I couldn’t do a review of 2016 without mentioning Pokémon GO, which had an extraordinary burst of popularity over July and August. Without a doubt the killer app of this year, Pokémon GO brought Augmented Reality (AR) into the mainstream. At one point it seemed like every kid in my city was chasing cartoon characters down the street. And the irony, at least for me? Pokémon GO was a smartphone app. So mobile phones are not dead yet!
    Conclusion
    Ultimately, I think Pokémon GO was an outlier this year. I look back on 2016 as the year in which Internet technology went well beyond our mobile phones. Whether it was VR headsets in our lounges, Alexa in our living rooms, or driverless cars being tested on our roads, 2016 expanded the scope of what it means to be ‘online’ (or ‘invirt’ as I put it in my VR novel). I expect to see more of this expansion in coming years.
    So when will the smartphone lose its status as our primary Internet device? Probably not for many years. However, perhaps this generation of teenagers will be the last to walk around with their necks craned downwards, staring at a small rectangular screen.
    Lead image: Wired

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