I really am tired of the repetitive and now long-redundant either/or debate around traditional and social media. Apart from being well worn, it risks obfuscating other issues. A good example of what gets lost lies in the Michael Valpy essay, Is this the end of social cohesion? and David Eaves’ response, Dear Valpy: social media isn’t killing democracy, it’s making it stronger.
We can probably blame Mr. Valpy because he brings up the subject of newspapers and social media and certainly makes some valid points (such as quoting Carleton’s Christopher Waddell’s speculation about seeking out confirmation online rather than challenges).
The problem, however, is that if you accept the argument that newspapers provided some social cohesion and, through challenges and debate, unifying ideas (something Mr. Eaves flatly rejects), surely we can take it further. If we were all made to own and read and study Bibles, and all made to belong to and attend Christian churches and their services, regardless of whether we were Christian or not, surely we’d have the cultural coherence and common touchstones that they had in Elizabethan England. Now that was coherent and that was a world with things in common, including shared values.
The problem is that in a democratic society that can hardly be considered democratic.
We’re told, however, that social media is. It has the potential to save the day. But who exactly is social media democratic for? The homeless? Personally, I’m not aware of any homeless people online, but maybe my social circle is limited.
Canada’s aboriginal people, those living in far off, rural areas with no Internet access? Or the ones living in poverty – do they have access? Do they even have computers? (I recently approached Canada’s food banks with the idea of using social media as a way to facilitate what they did, to reach more potential donors and volunteers etc. They liked the idea but had some huge obstacles: their disparate nature and the fact that many food banks don’t have Internet access and/or don’t have computers. The real world gave me a wake up call.)
Yes, I’ve written about this before.
Here’s the thing about social media: you need a computer or some handheld device. And you need access. And even if you do have the wherewithal for those things, you need to know how to use them and have a facility for doing so. It may be hard to believe, but some people don’t. Just as some people couldn’t balance a bank account to save their lives and some people couldn’t sing on key no matter how many lessons they took.
Social media comes with predicates. It makes assumptions about who you are and what you have. You meet those, you get to use it. Otherwise, you’re outta luck pal.
So let’s be careful when we speak of the democratizing nature of social media.
Our beautiful mosaic
But getting back to Michael Valpy’s essay … Mr. Eaves says Mr. Valpy enters the conversation three years late and that is true if the conversation is this endless traditional/social media thing. But the science fiction author Samuel R. Delany was writing about this back in the 1970s and 80s. However, he wasn’t writing about social media because what is at the heart of Valpy’s essay is not tools but people and society and our ability to find and talk to each other. Social media is a tool and nothing more.
What Delany was writing about was social fragmentation and the “What if …?” that follows when you follow it through to its extremes. In one of his novels (Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, I believe) the risk is cultural fugue, a kind of social catatonia. The economist Herbert Simon has said, “A wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention.” Delany’s novel seems to suggest, “A wealth of choice leads to an inability to choose.” Fugue.
To use a Canadian cliché, if we are a cultural mosaic what are we a mosaic of? Cultures or gated communities of the mind and spirit? Mr. Eaves doesn’t like the quote by Carleton’s Christopher Waddell about us seeking reinforcement rather than challenge online but I suspect Waddell is correct. But I think that is a human tendency the Internet facilitates rather than being a consequence of it being the Internet bogeyman. And it may be we tend to do this the more fragmented our world becomes.
Whatever the truth is, there is a problem and reducing it to a traditional versus social media argument misdirects attention. It misses the real world.
We think we know Canada and Canadians but what we know is the parameters of our own lives: friends, work, family. To everything else, we are tourists. The old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind,” applies. We don’t know the rest of the country, we don’t even know the rest of our own provinces. (How many people in Vancouver have ever been to, much less lived in, Fort St. John? How many of us have lived in Smiths Falls? How many in Toronto have lived in Elliot Lake? Who has been to and lived in Bathurst, New Brunswick?)
Social media can facilitate this but only if we are listening. Waddell’s question (“Do we?”) is one worth asking along with, “Who are we listening to?” Despite all the online voices, we have to constantly ask, “Who am I not hearing from?”
You can be sure someone’s voice isn’t there.