A love letter to the web and to social media

Part I: the attack

Over the past year, I have been engaged in several discussions as to whether the Web and Social Media are improving the world. In all these instances, I have tried to move the conversation towards what I believe to be the right topic: do the web and social media have the possibility of changing society for the best?
I definitely believe so and, after reading “Here comes everybody” by Clay Shirky, not only I reinforced my beliefs, but I hopefully developed better arguments to defend them.

A first consideration I want to make is that the diffusion of these social-oriented technologies is inevitable. Indeed, they are already part of our society! So the quicker we understand this, the quicker we can try to make the most out of their potential.

The main point of Shirky’s book, already evident in its subtitle, “The power of organizing without organizations”, is that the web and social media are radically improving the ability of people to form otherwise-latent groups.
These new social platforms (I did not choose the word “platforms” at random) rely on a very interesting formula:  do not coordinate users, but allow them to better coordinate themselves.
In the past (and I am not talking about a far away past) only institutions (whether commercial or political) could really bear the costs of organizing. Now power is in the reach of many more people.
Obama’s campaign (here’s a very interesting article about the way Obama’s online campaign worked), which relied on grassroots organizing, wouldn’t have been possible without the use of new media to let supporters independently organize themselves.

Other than based on the fact that it facilitates group-forming, I usually defend the internet because I believe it enables people to easily access information.
As much as we tend to give access to information for granted, most of the social differences that some people might impute to intelligence, come in fact from differences in access to information.
Access to information means more knowledge, better education, power.
For rural farmers in Bangladesh, where I spent about 2 months interning at Grameen Bank, being able to navigate the web meant for example knowing the fair price of a chicken or of a liter of milk so that no city-merchant could take advantage of them (previously ignoring the real market value of their goods, they were selling them at an unfairly low price).
Needless to say that to the young Bangladeshi I met, access to the Internet also meant better language skills, a better knowledge of history and politics, etc… The list would be too long.
This is true also for the young American or for the old German, for anyone indeed. But the web diminishes the bias that favored the wealthy side of the world, while allowing everyone (wealthy side included) to know more.
In brief, a world where more people know more!

Finally, another argument that I always bring forward in my pro-web crusade is that the more traditional media have so far mainly imposed content on the users, whilst new media allow users to contribute.
Shirky quotes an old saying that goes straight to my point: “freedom of the press exists only for those who own a press”. New technologies are giving a chance to everyone to express themselves and to reach a potentially very large audience with very low costs. At the same time they are making it harder for the few people in charge to impose their opinions on a bunch of “listeners”.

Part II: the defense

Usually, after I made a long passionate speech based on the arguments above, some people start sharing a bit of my enthusiasm, but I noticed how there are three arguments that my friends often use to challenge me. “Here comes everybody” directly or indirectly deals with them all.  This is what my friends usually say:

1) “Online there is a lot of bad content!”
True, bad content might be more evident now, but most (if not all) of what you can now witness online would have happened anyway, simply not under your scrutiny. As Shirky points out, most content is not directed to you. The only real difference is that you now know it exists.
My point on this issue, which Shirky would more elegantly define as the “net value” argument, is that I’d rather having even just one more genius published online than losing his wisdom because a single publisher decided he wasn’t worth it.
I’ll steal a consideration from Shirky’s epilogue: I “assume that the value of freedom outweighs the problems”.

2) “The web is killing professional journalism”
I would argue that journalism is a profession that needs to re-invented itself.
When scribes were “substituted” by the printing press, they thought it was going to be the end of culture and civilization. Instead, from that moment, culture became accessible to everyone, with its obvious egalitarian advantages.
It’d be very pretentious to think that the model we have so far represents the apex of journalism. It’d be like arguing that our current society is at the apex of human history. How sad would it be to live in a clearly imperfect world and assume that nothing could be improved?

I invite everyone (myself included) to remember that “the world is my representation” for everyone and in any époque. By reminding this, I mean that we should try to question our beliefs a little bit more. Because we are used to something being in a particular way, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be challenged and that it will always be the absolute truth. Definitions of good and bad have changed throughout history and are deemed to keep on changing. Journalism can change too. Journalists are now far more accountable than they used to be and I believe society at large is gaining from this.

3) ”Social Media are an awful threat to privacy”
While the problem arises, I again avail myself of the “net value” argument. While we might have to be a little bit more careful when we don’t want everyone to know everything about us, so it is true for the people in charge. Maybe it is because I come from Italy, but I do welcome a little bit more of transparency (nonetheless, at a rate of one scandal per day, the current government is still in charge).

What’s next?

So what’s the next step to make this new media revolution more effective?
I’ll leave some concrete answers to Shirky:
“If there was a structure that allowed for internet-friendly incorporation, we might see an increase in collective action directed at creating and sustaining things, instead of being protest dominated, as it is today”. “People might be able to start using these tools to bypass government or commercial entities in favor of taking on problems directly”.

I truly believe these new technologies have an enormous potential.
Sure, I don’t believe that the web and social media only bring good news and it is indeed important to look at things with critical eyes, but as they are now an integral part of our society, I would invite everyone to work hard on making the most out of their incredible potential, instead of concentrating on despising them.
In fact, it is going to be up to us to make them as successful as possible in improving our society.

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