Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Social Media PART III: The Grand Validation

In PARTs 1 and 2 of my series on social media I examined the entertainment value as well as the potential consequences of an unchecked digital neural network that mirrors our own reality. In PART 3 I want to evaluate social medias role as our external processing agent.

I have always been fascinated by statuses and updates that appear to be nothing more than a person's thoughts put to a digital byline. From updates on what we are eating to a random thought such as "I love Neil DeGrasse Tyson" for some reason we feel that is a valuable exercise to put our thoughts onto digital paper. Why?

To examine this phenomenon I think we have to back up a bit and examine why we write anything down at all. The complex transmission of ideas in language is something that is far beyond my reach and is more of a subject for a philosophy student than a blog poster, but I figured why the hell not take a crack at it.

Written communication is a relatively new thing (as far as we know). Even going back thousands of years to the emergence of cave paintings, hieroglyphs, and the proto-sinaitic alphabet we are still dealing with very rudimentary (and theoretical) forms of communication. Trying to convey an idea from one person to another varies in degrees of difficulty based on the complexity of an idea. If I am trying to convey to you "I am here" then I can simply point to myself and then point to the ground. You may misinterpret what I am intended to convey; you may think that I am pointing to my shirt, my chest, or my heart, but you understand that I have a signifier (me who is trying to do the communicating) and a signified (that which I am trying to convey to you). However, the more complex the idea gets the harder it is to communicate.

If I tried to explain to you what I mean by the word "art" we would do well to pour two glasses of scotch, sit down by a fire, and prepare for a long conversation. Mental constructs that do not have tangible points of reference require a great amount of information about the signified from the signifier just to begin to convey what it is someone is talking about. For many this will all seem to be basic information, but I think that it is important at the outset to define what I mean by "communication" before I attempt to figure out what we are trying to communicate when we post our thoughts on social media and why.

If we assume that that brain works by firing patterns in our neurons and synapses as we explored in PART 1 then it should be safe to assume that whether the idea is simple like sharing a location or complex like "art" a person seems to be attempting to get patterns to repeat in the synapses of another person's brain. In short, we are trying to get someone else to think like us. Otherwise, what would be the point of communicating? We want each other to understand each other. The only way we can do this is with empathy. If we simply observe what someone is saying with no brain activity of our own then we are not interacting with that information and therefore not communication. If we understand an idea that someone is telling us then we are mimicking their brain pattern by caring about what they are trying to communicate. In short, we are trying to get others to mirror our own thoughts because we are trying to connect with them for good or ill.

This is where social media comes in. It functions as a utilitarian connection tool. Instead of getting one person to mirror our synapses we can throw our ideas out to tens, hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people at a time. Why? In the hopes that they will mirror our thoughts and empathize with us. Now, why do we need and/or want so many people to mirror us?

At some level I think we have to admit to the "look at me" factor. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if we don't count the posting of news, PSAs, or entertainment (since we covered those in PART 2) and only focus on what would normally be either internal or external thoughts (depending on your personality type) then I think you have to ask yourself: why do I feel the need to tell people this?  I think, again, its for the validation. If I post what I made for dinner, what I think of a politician, or a question I have about the sky being blue and I get a lot of "likes" then I can feel legitimized in my opinion because people have empathized with me. They have felt enjoyment, puzzlement, or wonder the same way I have. I have succeeded in connecting with them.

The "likes", hearts, +1s and all the other designations of validation and approval are also interesting because they seem to function as the great democratizer of content in the Network. Traditionally (in the post-industrial west at least), popularity has been based on how much money an idea or product could generate. Whether it be newspapers, books, songs, elections, or even ideas themselves they were propagated based on their ability to generate revenue. Outlandish products and ideas such as x-ray vision spectacles or the idea that dinosaurs were human pets have been lost to obscurity because they were irrelevant to people's lives and therefore people had no reason to buy the glasses or the books espousing the theories. With the advent of social media this changed for better or for worse.

No longer does a product or idea need to be bought in order to be culturally relevant. Things can go viral these days based on the number of interactions they generate. Social media companies know this and have tailored their algorithms to post more prominently those things that get more attention. Case in point: trending topics.

There are positive and negative repercussions to the great democratization of information. In election years social media is fantastic for pointing out what issues or politicians people are talking about (let me for the sake of this particular conversation set aside the fact that the digital space these politicians are occupying was bought by the corporate interest). However, it also makes it possible for ridiculous and irrelevant stories such as Justin Bieber's DUI arrest to become national news at the expense of real news. The fact that I (your author) even know about that story when I couldn't give two shits about Bieber is a testament to the power of the great democratization.

Externalizing thoughts can be powerful because social media can reach far many more people with an idea or a product for free than a person could manage on their own, but it also allows for the great dilution of content because the popular becomes the meaningful. Also, with the advent of ads on the pages of "free" social media sites (for you younger folks: this was not always the case) those who have the money can pay for their content to be sponsored and prioritized. Whoever has the gold makes the rules, even in a digital democracy.

At the end of the day I think we post our ideas, work, products, and any other personal information because we want it (or us) to get noticed. We (signifier) ball up big piles of information and complex ideas (signified) and toss it out into the vast Network in the hopes that folks will gravitate toward it, like it, and democratically make it relevant (or trending or viral). The problem is that when you remove the personal touch (or nonverbal communication signs) then some of the complexity of certain ideas can be lost. Sure, "I had Grandma's Best Apple Pie and it was the best" isn't going to lose a lot in translation, but "Abortion is wrong! Outlaw it!" is definitely going to be misheard, misinterpreted, and misappropriated. Instead of creating the potential for democratizing the idea the POSTer of the latter will have guaranteed nothing but the coddling affirmation of those whom agree with them and have instantly destroyed the potential for dialogue before it has begun. Throw on top of that paid-for algorithms and social media creates more clubs than conversations.

Is this process inherently good or bad? No, but it—like everything—comes at a cost. The great democratization of external thoughts comes with the price tag of the private. For those with the gold it is an easy process: capitalize on the fame and no matter the value of your content it will be shared, democratized, popularized, and made relevant. For the rest of us we end up sharing far more of our private thoughts than we may otherwise be inclined to do in the search for validation. POSTs do not exist in a void. Each one is a point in a timeline of POSTs that is aimed at maximum exposure. If a person POSTs once every six months their audience will not be inclined to pay attention. Therefore, the avid Node will POST far more often in order to develop a regular audience so that their content will be more likely to be democratically raised in relevance and therefore their ideas more validated and therefore they themselves more connected and empathized with.

We externalize on social media because we want to be heard and since all the parks are being paved into parking lots it seems like our only avenue.

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