30 January 2017

The New York Times: “Is Social Media disconnecting us from the Big Picture?”

What happens when we would rather look inward? I have found something of an answer in a short story called The Great Silence, by Ted Chiang, about humankind’s search for signs of alien life. The story is narrated by a parrot in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, home to one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. “Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe,” the creature begins. “But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?” The paradox is not to be missed: We are more interested in locating alien species than understanding the humanity among the species we already live with. The story ends on a somber note. “Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction,” the narrator explains. “They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.”

Chiang’s lesson hits hard in this new political and cultural moment. Social media seemed to promise a way to better connect with people; instead it seems to have made it easier to tune out the people we don’t agree with. But if we can’t pay attention to one another, we might as well not live on the same planet at all.

Jenna Wortham

As the article states, instead of a better way to connect with people, social media is increasingly about connecting advertisers with consumers. To maximize that, networks need to show people what they want to see, not necessarily what they need to see. Is there any wonder then that the biggest advertising companies, Facebook and Google, struggle to contain the proliferation of ‘fake news’? Removing them goes contrary to their business model, so there’s little financial incentive to act decisively.

Social Media disconnecting from the Big Picture
Photo illustration by Adam Ferriss

Users are rewarded with a virtual thumbs-up that we’ve slowly granted legitimate psychological meaning. Media outlets are rewarded with eyeballs that can be converted to ad dollars. Facebook is rewarded with a $347 billion market valuation. “Fake news” isn’t a glitch in the system, but rather the Like economy working at peak efficiency. The question now is whether Facebook is really willing to look beyond engagement metrics as it tries to tackle this significant problem.

Victor Luckerson

As a social media user, you are constantly bombarded with hundreds of micro-stories in your news feed. As someone rightly observed, this puts every update, be it from a friend, a trustworthy news source or a ‘fake’ story, on the same level in the minds and hearts of people. You trust your close friends, so why not that headline that pops up just in-between their nice travel photos? Between constant advertising, propaganda and the carefully orchestrated online lives of influencers, is there any wonder that people can no longer distinguish reality from fiction? Sometimes I wonder if the only solution is disconnecting on a massive scale, and a carefully curated online experience more like China’s than today’s free-for-all Internet.

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