Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Social Media: Why It Will Change the World

It is tempting to look at platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and see them as mildly irritating teenagers that have yet to grow up, develop adult sensibilities and start conforming to the realities of the real world. Many journalists, judges and politicians take this view I believe. It is rather less comfortable to imagine Facebook and Twitter as the vanguard of something that is going to remake the world and change its realities. But social media is going to do this and outlined below are the reasons.

For 600 years we have lived in a world where distributing information was expensive and our approach to managing information was therefore restrictive. Information was a scare and precious resource because the channels it had to live within made it so. News was edited down into 30 second segments, marketing was edited down into 30 second ads and trust was imprisoned within institutionalized mediators (news organizations, banks, universities, encyclopaedias). The big shift has happened because social media liberates information from restrictive means of distribution -- it has meant that information has become free in both a monetary sense and a mobility sense -- and this is why lots of things are going to change.

Why trust is changing
We live in a society where most of the available trust lives in institutions -- brands, banks, governments, universities. The reason we do this goes back to Gutenberg and his printing press. Before Gutenberg, it was harder to trust. People either had to rely upon individual experience or upon forms of tradition and practice, most of which had their roots in forms of oral culture. Gutenberg created a print culture and what this did was allow us to trust things which lay outside of the narrow boundaries of personal experience (as well as questioning our trust in the hitherto established traditions and practices). In effect, printing made it possible to start to build reputation amongst audiences of people. Put another way, printing allowed us to add scale to trust. The catch was that the tools needed to do this -- the tools of publication -- were expensive and thus could only live within the hands of institutions (or rather institutions such as the media, evolved in order to exploit the opportunity these tools presented).
But now that the tools of publication are no longer expensive, trust is leaking out of institutions and it is shifting into processes. Wikipedia is the classic example. We don't trust its entries because we trust the institution of Wikipedia, as we do with the institution that is Encyclopaedia Britannica. We trust its individual entries only in-so-far as we trust the process that has produced them. We used to trust a news story because we trusted the institution from which it came. And because of the cost restrictions inherent in the medium this institution had to operate within, a news organisation created trust by editing down what it presented as the truth. It therefore shields us from much of the available information, or crunches it down into an 'interpretation' of what we should think. When the cost restrictions are removed what happens is that news stops being a finished product and becomes a raw material and we can start to apply a process-based assessment to how we define its truth. Rather than seek to define the truth, or accuracy, of any particular bit of information by excluding what we consider untrue (or not worthy of publication), we can assess where any individual bit of information sits in relation to the whole dataset of relevant information. It is an approach I call the probability curve of news. We can see what information sits at the margins and what sits within the mainstream and the reason we can do this is because we can access and process, the whole dataset. We don't have to edit things away in order to squeeze the truth (or a version thereof) into 800 words or 30 seconds. We don't need an editor, we need a processor. News organizations that realize how to deal with news as a raw material will survive in some form. Those that don't will die.


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