Social media has overrun the world. Facebook connects your friends, LinkedIn networks your jobs and Twitter embodies your insightful and mundane thoughts (for better or worse). Slashdot, Digg and Reddit have made news social, while traditional news sites have embraced services like Disqus to bring discussion to their articles. Quora and StackExchange crowdsource answers for your deepest questions and Amazon has made a commerce community through product reviews.
But there’s a massive elephant in the room. Facebook, in its attempt “to make the world more open and connected,” seems to instead make people more unhappy and less satisfied. Twitter is a lightning rod for criticism, a land of vapid and meaningless tweets. Even marketers question if social media is just a huge waste of time in the face of enormous valuations of social media behemoths.
Most social media outlets do not promote meaningful, timely discussion. They focus myopically on the information of the moment—the news—and in turn inundate their users with irrelevant information while sacrificing the time needed to contemplate and form meaningful, nuanced opinions.
Most news comes in the form of chronological feeds. Newspapers, magazines and journals release current news on a regular basis. Television and radio broadcast the news live as it occurs. Online services like Reddit and Twitter list trending topics, and Facebook feeds display your friends’ news in real time.
But the 24-hour news cycle guarantees that no topic, no matter how important, survives any of these institutions beyond a few weeks.
We need to compartmentalize information through feeds because there is just too much information to process at any given time. As the pace of news has accelerated, so has the rate at which people consume news. News feeds filter out the noise, consolidating information the world considers important. Yet, according to a Pew poll, not a single news audience is well-informed about current events.
Feeds do not prevent information overflow; in many cases, they exacerbate it. We need new paradigms of consuming and discussing the news, not because we need to understand everything that’s going on, but because accepting that we can’t comprehend everything allows us to focus on what we do know.
Reddit is the closest I’ve seen to producing quality discussion online. Its algorithm assigns a score to every post. A post’s score prioritizes whatever has the most “upvotes” and the fewest “downvotes.” That simple notion produces curated, timely and meaningful information that, coupled with a strong commenting system, creates a wealth of discussion.
However, the algorithm also decreases a post’s score exponentially as time passes, meaning that no post can remain at the top of the Reddit news feed for more than a couple of days. This is a great algorithm for the news, as it directly tracks what people consider interesting in the moment. But it fails to preserve information long enough for reflection.
“Redditors” commonly complain about “karma whores” who game Reddit’s system to fill up the front page with uninteresting drivel. Ironically, people often “repost” old content on Reddit. Despite critics who complain that they’ve already seen those posts before, reposts nonetheless always find themselves at the top of the feed, reflecting people’s desires to return to good content.
Some services are approaching the concept of time and how it impacts communication in interesting ways. Snapchat embraces the ephemerality of information, destroying messages mere seconds after they’ve been read. On the other hand Medium aims to display long-form text in deliberate and compelling ways, incentivizing quality of writing and thought instead of the time it takes for a journalist to react to an event.
This is not to say persistent information doesn’t exist on the web. Online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, journal databases like JStor and Lexis Nexis, and the WayBack Machine serve important roles in data archiving. And search engines like Google allow people to not only view the latest information but to search for information on a topical, rather than chronological basis. Yet none of these are social in nature; they serve as research tools, not as forums for discussion.
Understanding and working with the ephemerality of news has real consequences. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is still corroding beaches in Louisiana, but I haven’t even heard it mentioned in months. And Edward Snowden, in an attempt to overcome the ephemerality of news in the national consciousness, is leaking sensitive NSA information over time to remain “news.” The fact he needed to do what he did to spark a national discussion represents a fundamental flaw in the way information flows through modern society. It threatens the maintenance of justice and a working democracy.
So, the next time you hear that social media is worthless, think again—it’s a reflection of society itself, and there’s a lot of work to be done in making discussion count.
Contact Omar Diab at firstname.lastname@example.org.