2016 has been a year of significant and uncelebrated milestones which, whether we have acknowledged them or not, serve as a very real reminder of fundamental shifts each redefining how information is being processed and delivered. Even the most devoted users of social media, during our time spent head-bowed and nose-buried in blue light, might not have appreciated that Twitter, which went live on March 21, 2006, turned ten years old. On September 26 of that same year, Facebook – Twitter’s more commercially aggressive elder sibling – officially opened registration to everyone of thirteen years and older.1 Since that time they have both stood at the vanguard of virtual expression, connection and communication; Facebook, which has proved the more viable of the two, has either bred, bought or is competing with every other popular platform (think of Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp) to establish an ultimately ephemeral world of territories for presentation and reflection. Over the course of the last decade the skill of professional broadcasting has become no less than an instrument of survival.
Online social interaction has collapsed relationships between organizations and individuals, and has been almost universally embraced for two reasons. The first is simple: without platforms like Twitter and Facebook – and also including Snapchat (the first platform for transient media), WeChat (‘Weibo’, in China), VK (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) and Alphabet’s suite of tools to the mix – the fluidity of sharing that now exists would be otherwise impossible. The second reason is less simple to define: without a Like, a Favorite or a double-tap a post, for most, is considered a failure. To save face one might delete the post altogether, and the act of self-curation – once limited to encounters en realité – becomes an inexorable way of life. This new condition, while harmless in itself, has fascinating implications for the wider media landscape.
The ideal at the root of the World Wide Web hinges around open access to information – the concept that everyone, be they in Tulsa or Timbuktu, can retrieve identical data on demand to stay informed, relay messages or to be entertained. While mankind has, on the whole, been remarkably successful in realizing this objective (due in part to its almost immediate privatization), the frameworks that maintain it are fragile in less obvious ways. Following true Orwellian augury some online voices are increasingly deemed more equal than others: Verification, for example – the process by which a platform authen- ticates an online persona irrespective of the number of Fans, Followers or Likes accrued2 – is a tool deployed by social platforms to forge hierarchies of authenticity in and beyond the digital sphere. For many the little blue badge has become a highly coveted talisman, even if the mechanisms behind its fount of honor – the impenetrable corporate likes of Twitter and Facebook – are opaque, relatively undefined, and privately controlled.
Ostensibly playful gimmicks of this sort run the risk of developing more sinister undertones, and under our very noses. Many recognize that governments in countries such as China, North Korea, Burma, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Tunisia and Turkmenistan openly monitor and survey, to varying degrees, all internal and global Internet traffic between, from and to their citizens. Most people living outside of these bubbles understand that this is not beneficial for the majority of people living under this sort of surveillance; these same people, however, do not necessarily appreciate that this sort of modus operandi is far closer to home than they might at first realize.3 As the Web gradually matures from floundering infancy (2000-2013) into awkward adolescence (2014-), the question that we should look to frame revolves around this fledgling reality.
It is here that the broader picture comes into play: two recent political upturns, each with international implications, represent a narrowing of perspectives and foreshadow more concerning implications for open access to information. The very contours of ‘Brexit’ – the in-out referendum posed to British citizens on whether or not to abandon the European Union in the summer of this year – were shaped by a conversation which took place online. For those in the Remain camp, any notion of secession from the EU felt, for a long time, implausible. Those who supported the Leave campaign similarly felt that
the majority of voters were on their side. The geographical isolation of opinion across the British Isles – London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain; the rest of England and Wales voted to Leave – was delineated by social interaction as mediated through social media. Echo chambers of opinion, cultivated by algorithmic uncertainty and individually curated, meant that few were exposed to (or, for that matter, argued their point with) someone of a different point of view. With so much information, opinion and post-truth propaganda at our fingertips the opposition could be hidden, unfollowed, or blocked entirely from view by a simple click or a tap.
The United States have witnessed a larger, far more extreme and complex case. The 2016 Presidential election between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton represented a paradigm shift in not only whose voices can be heard, but also whose voices are listened to. While both candidates employed Communication Directors, Trump also had a Director of Social Media, Daniel Scavino. His work, in the words of the campaign, involved “using Twitter to post images and videos covering Trump’s campaign rallies and for attacking Hillary Clinton, including rapid responses.”4 In spite of using Twitter as a vehicle for inflammatory, racist, sexist, false and bigoted accusatory remarks Trump’s campaign (the mechanisms by which he spread his message) felt by many voters to be more in touch with how they live their own social lives.5
Open access to information as an ideal remains, therefore, inherently problematic. Social media (produced and digested by all at once and simultaneously) is an evolution of digital media, a more rapid-fire and information rich adaptation of the long and volatile history of print. Different paces of production and consumption mean that there is a valuable role for all three formats – but only if we can avoid hybridizing and homogenizing their respective qualities, audiences and structures into a gauche, multitudinous broadcaster. The greatest mistake that traditional media organizations have made at the dawn of Web 2.0 (and since) has been to simply migrate content from the printed page to the screen.
In an interview published by MIT’s Decentralized Information Group in 2006, Sir Tim Berners-Lee – the creator of the World Wide Web – argued that any form of regulation imposed to keep the Internet ‘open’ is regulation nonetheless. “Democracy depends on freedom of speech,” he argued. “Freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, is the fundamental social basis of the Internet, and, now, the society based on it.”6 If we are living through the golden age of access to information, the ‘democratizing data deluge’ must be read for what it is: cascades of bytes and networked communication that individuals, online platforms, media organizations and governments are each steadily utilizing, with varying degrees of success. We should remember, and value, that the most astonishing miracle of the Internet is that it exists. The second most astonishing – and most tenuous – is that it persists.
An earlier iteration of Facebook – “thefacebook” – launched in 2004.
Twitter describe Verification as letting “people know that an account of public interest is authentic.” Facebook defines it as declaring a “Page or profile for [a] public figure, media company or brand” as “authentic”.
On November 19, 2016 The Guardian broke the news that the government of the United Kingdom had passed a bill [the Investigatory Powers Act] authorising “the most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world” with minimal resistance from within and outside of Parliament.
“Al Jazeera”. ‘The People Behind Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton’. At: http://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2016/us-elections-2016- inner-circles/ [accessed 19 Nov 2016]
In November 2016 Wired compiled numbers on the effectiveness of Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton’s social media campaigns. On all but three of the criteria, the statistics from Trump’s campaign were marginally ahead aside from one – the average monthly searches of the candidates’ full names. While Hillary had 165,000, Trump had 7,480,000.
Tim Berners-Lee, ‘Net Neutrality: This is Serious’. timbl’s blog, Decentralized Information Group at MIT. At: http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/144 [accessed November 10, 2016]