Social Media inequality might become a bigger problem than wealth inequality. In a liberal society, it is easier to tax people than force them to have a certain taste and redistribute their likes and subscriptions. Yet social media inequality could become a source of immense frustration and a destabilizing factor once the world really moves online.
If you write a book, you have to be that book. Your time must become the time of the book. If you engage in public discussion on social media, the world (the others) will always be a step ahead of you. Only the latest analysis and verdict are worth mentioning – everything else is irrelevant, a mere object of the ongoing public debate that relentlessly pushes forward.
With a nod to Albert Camus, the mere act of halting the frenzy of evaluations in order to formulate your own narrative is an act of rebellion. If you are utterly unafraid of being ‘irrelevant’ tomorrow, it means that you have found a genuine interest.
In a world where social media companies are designed to optimize both advertising income and data extraction, their algorithms make sure that we spend as much time online as possible. And since cat photos are unlikely to engage a user’s soul, they reward controversy and political outrage.
What the bleep do we want?
Subjected to a deluge of information, knowing what you are really interested in is more important than ever. It depends not only on education, but on luck. If you were lucky enough to find out in your childhood what you are really interested in, you will find it much easier in later life to focus on that subject and avoid distraction. This has always been the case, from the Wright brothers’ fascination with flying to Thomas Aquinas’ fascination with harmonizing the Bible with Aristotle to Claude Monet’s fascination with color. Is it any different in the age of distraction? Should we be more thankful if a genuine interest has befallen us in a time when nearly everybody is wearing a distraction apparatus in his or her pocket? Are people less likely to develop an undiluted interest for something under the new predicament?
We don’t consciously pick or choose our genuine interest, because, in the language of philosophy, it is logically older than our agency. The I is always-already directed towards the world before it becomes conscious of the fact. Genuine interest is the attempt of our subconscious mind to experience this directedness without an intermediary. When we evaluate potential areas of interest in order to find our true calling, we are rationalizing. We try to find unassailable reasons that will convince ourselves that such and such must be our true interest, or even our calling, to use that unfashionable term.
How to not find your calling
This is how, at eighteen, I went about finding my calling. I visited a number of universities in the Low Countries and compiled precise reasons for studies like chemistry, architecture or molecular biology. The ones for computer science were the most compelling to my young and inexperienced mind. I would be able to employ my full creativity while making something useful and without the dependency on lengthy, boring, material processes. Obviously, the reason I had fabricated was bad propaganda and I fell out of love with IT soon after. With apologies for the hackneyed phrase, you don’t find an interest, it finds you. If it is a genuine interest, not pursuing it ought to be almost unbearable. This, at least, is what many artists, scholars and scientists alike have always attested.
Back then, in 1998, there were some distractions (notably the television), but nothing like what we have today. It must have been enough to shut down the voice of my subconscious announcing what “I” (what was in the process of becoming that I) ‘really’ wanted.
Here is what I am worried about. If young children are bombarded with information, how can they choose? How can they develop a strong interest for one thing if, as soon as learning about it presents the slightest challenge, a plethora of other things is literally at their fingertips? How can they really learn how to concentrate on something, if distraction is more profitable for the advertisement machine that orchestrates the flow of information they can access?
Children need strong key experiences that are not fragments on a social media timeline they glint at in passing, scanning if it is something their in-group thinks they must know. Experiences that make an impression on their souls because they can’t be scrolled down or swiped out of sight. Experiences that have a sense of inevitability, that don’t have alternatives, command our full attention and seem to give us a glimpse at the true nature of reality.
In the digital era, such strong experiences seem to be as scarce as the simulacra or fake experiences you can purchase online. Because distraction has become the norm, it is more important than ever to realize how lucky we are if we find our real interest.
Imagine you’re a wealthy shop owner and you hear about this “thing”, this new technology that strongly amplifies every voice raised on it and thus promises to lure paying customers into your business. Wow, you think, I don’t wanna miss this boat, and you ask how much it would cost. “It’s free”, some bearded hippies yawn at you and that makes you feel uncomfortable. You want a decent service from this “thing” and you will pay for it. “Alright”, a trimmed hipster tells you, “here’s the deal”. And you sign a contract with the new “thing” which will boost your sales eventually.
The “thing” is of course the internet, and what we have to understand is that the already-powerful will benefit more from it than the barely visible “grass roots” initiatives, no matter if they are a roadside fruit stall or a community center. The tiny initiatives don’t have a voice so there is nothing that can be amplified by our internet machine. Instead, we see Big Brands taking over this allegedly power-neutral web and benefit more from it than our beloved grassroots non-profits, even proportionally more.
The so-called “flatness of the world” proclaimed by Tom Friedman because he can travel anywhere on a whimp and marvel at multinational business deals, is a misleading metaphore at best. If we have something left in us that discounts the cynical “everything is fatally connected” and let the empathy with real people speak, then, o then… Then we should help the grassroots initiatives, the small rural hospitals, the women’s cooperatives, the peace groups, the environmental protesters, the orphan homes, the community art – everything that isn’t yet affected by the acid of hypercapitalist logic eating away its ties to land and life.
A way to do this is to take the very cynical neoliberal propaganda of “leveling the playing field” seriously. We should leverage their voices in order to make them found by skilled idealists who can help. If we say “it’s all about connections” we mean “it’s all about power” – and without a fistful of it you don’t exist. But if we stay determined even the powerless can be found. We just need to put them in a magic telephone book.
I mean our internet platform “kindmankind.net” and it’s for that platform that I do a daily “Social Media Fairness Session”. Because I think these sessions are worth your time this article is about them. So, how do I go about it? Let’s say I want to list some grassroots initiatives in the country of Chad. Google is of course a handy tool but we all know it has some built-in bias that is detrimental to the grassroots, and it doesn’t give us trusted results. So I choose couchsurfing.org to be my starting point. As pointed out on charitytravel.blogspot.com, where my journey started, the trusted profiles of couchsurfing can be of great value for small grassroots initiatives.
A careful keyword search yields a list of NGO directors, well-intended individuals and independent volunteers who might like to be listed on and found through our platform. So I write them a humble e-mail about it. Then I ask some users of flickr.com if we can use photos of little known countries like Chad. Perhaps there’s even some group on facebook.com or linkedin.com, I’ll contact them. Then I look at existing websites that are not open and use google to identify the grassroots stuff they are listing. They all receive an e-mail as well. Everything put together, we have a free and open map of the world (today including Chad) full of dots depicting fragile yet worthy contributions to a better world.
What do we do with this listing? This is the second phase of the Social Media Fairness Session, and consists of publishing to the social web (facebook, twitter, digg, del.icio.us, hellotxt, statusnet, skype, wikipedia, feedburner, twitterfeed, socialoomph, google+, buzz, idealist), and inspiring people to help where it’s needed. It includes writing and translating articles about the concept, reformulating it in many ways so as to reach a diverse audience of potential enthusiasts who take this idea and add their own. It includes traveling ourselves and demonstrating the spirit, to practice what we preach. And it inevitably leads to getting a little bit crazy, in the end.