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/