Does Social Media help our Debate? — The Medium is the Message

This is the sec­ond of four (pos­si­bly more) posts in which I con­sid­er how our shift to social media as the forum of the polis affects our argu­ments.

As we get deep­er and deep­er into this social media age, the ques­tion I often return to is whether or not social media helps or hin­ders our debate in this new dig­i­tal ‘pub­lic square.’

A while ago a col­league was doing some research using eye track­ing while par­tic­i­pants looked at web­sites, and as an aside not­ed that many par­tic­i­pants active­ly looked at oth­er links on the screen, rather than the pri­ma­ry con­tent of the web­site. 4 This seemed to indi­cate that peo­ple were more inter­est­ed in find­ing anoth­er page and source of infor­ma­tion than pro­cess­ing the infor­ma­tion in front of them.

https://xkcd.com/386/

This serves as a help­ful reminder of Marshall McLuhan’s the­sis that it isn’t mere­ly the mes­sage that deter­mines atten­tion and reten­tion, but the medi­um of the mes­sage holds salience even with­in CMC.  In this case the very nature of read­ing arti­cles and even books on a dig­i­tal device reduces atten­tion span with­in the over­all pop­u­lace. We should not be sur­prised when users inter­act with only a mere snip­pet of mate­r­i­al, while ignor­ing the rest of the argu­ment.

In com­bi­na­tion with the sheer vol­ume of infor­ma­tion avail­able, this has sig­nif­i­cant detri­men­tal effects. In sort­ing and fil­ter­ing through the ever expand­ing sea of infor­ma­tion, our heuris­tics to detect the ever dwin­dling sig­nal to noise ratio have to become far coars­er. In doing so our mod­ern cul­ture has con­densed the infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing process into a series of bite sized snip­pets. News arti­cles have been con­densed from the long-form essay, to short columns, and then pithy snip­pets, shared on Facebook, con­densed into 140 char­ac­ter tweets, and sub­se­quent­ly regur­gi­tat­ed as 2–3 sec­ond sound bites. This reduc­tion in infor­ma­tion length has seen a cor­re­spond­ing reduc­tion in the aver­age atten­tion span for all media; and the reduc­tion doesn’t appear to be mere­ly an expres­sion of ‘the Elvis Hypothesis.’ 5

Ultimately, I think that engag­ing in pub­lic debate on social media may be a low return propo­si­tion, as a min­i­mal amount of argu­ment is engaged with, and much is skipped over rapid­ly, and this isn’t even con­sid­er­ing the ‘echo cham­ber’ like fil­ter­ing that many social media com­pa­nies engage in. 6

So, is there any point in pub­lic debate on social media? Is my writ­ing and pub­lish­ing of this piece (on social media) a futile exer­cise? Not quite, as we will see in future posts. But the sit­u­a­tion is like­ly to get worse before it gets bet­ter.

Chris

About Chris

Notes:

  1. Research was pub­lished as Benjamin Stone, ‘Using LSA Semantic Fields to Predict Eye Movement on Web Pages’, International Journal of Human-com­put­er Studies 69/11 (2011): 720–740.
  2. The Elvis bias is essen­tial­ly an invert­ed appeal to nov­el­ty fal­la­cy, or a mod­i­fied appeal to tra­di­tion. Karina J. Linnell et al., ‘Urbanization decreas­es atten­tion­al engage­ment.’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 39/5 (2013): 1232–1247.
  3. https://www.wired.com/2016/11/filter-bubble-destroying-democracy/
  4. Research was pub­lished as Benjamin Stone, ‘Using LSA Semantic Fields to Predict Eye Movement on Web Pages’, International Journal of Human-com­put­er Studies 69/11 (2011): 720–740.
  5. The Elvis bias is essen­tial­ly an invert­ed appeal to nov­el­ty fal­la­cy, or a mod­i­fied appeal to tra­di­tion. Karina J. Linnell et al., ‘Urbanization decreas­es atten­tion­al engage­ment.’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 39/5 (2013): 1232–1247.
  6. https://www.wired.com/2016/11/filter-bubble-destroying-democracy/