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LOOKING BACKWARD, LOOKING FORWARD: PART 3

FORCE THREE: SOCIAL MEDIA ISN’T HELPING

[Ottawa – January 3, 2013] Internet 2.0 (surely we are at least at 3.0) is transforming our society in ways we couldn’t even have imagined twenty five years ago. The Internet is the new mass media and social media is now the avidly consumed by most Canadians, particularly those below our median age of 41 years (it was around 26 at the last Centennial celebrations of 1967).

This isn’t merely a change to our popular culture; social media is at the heart of the North American economy with the Facebook IPO the biggest economic event of the past year. Notably, on the day that Facebook purchased Instagram (still too fresh a name to be recognized by my spell check) for one billion dollars the venerable New York Times was valued at 900 million dollars.

When we ask the public their views on what impacts social media are having on overall quality of life in general and democratic health more particularly, the responses are overwhelmingly positive. Virtually everyone thinks that social media is a liberating force which is enriching and broadening democratic and societal health. Putting aside the irony that this consensus comes at a time when barometers of democratic health are at historical low points in our tracking, we are left puzzled about these nearly unanimous thumbs up on the salubrious impacts of social media.

Clearly, there are many wonderful applications of social media and as an enthusiastic fan of twitter I can attest to its value, fun and occasional danger. It is still puzzling to see how in an era where mistrust and scepticism are both very high, social media has largely escaped critical public scrutiny. I will leave the question of the plausibility of building a future economy on the rather ephemeral world of social media to more qualified experts. I will, however, note that the Facebook IPO has become the ‘Faceplant’ event in the minds of burned investors and I never really understood how ‘poking’ our way to recovery was a solid long-term strategy for fending off the emerging Asian economies.

In Canada, there has been an explosion of interest in the use of social media as a form of political expression. Online communities and petitions abound and the Twitterverse is awash in critical commentary of the most dramatic sort. In work presented after the last federal election, Mike Colledge of Ipsos noted that during the 41st election campaign, the tone of the Internet shifted from a relatively balanced ideological tone to a decidedly more left of center tone. More notably, this bore no resemblance to the outcome of the election itself.

Some have argued that the less strenuous ‘click’ democracy available to denizens of the social media universe is becoming an ersatz touchstone which occludes the importance of authentic political participation. Moreover, those who vigorously contest the policies of the day in the world of social media, and who believe that this is really making a difference become more embittered as this delusion is shattered in the real world of elections. In Canada, younger voting hasn’t risen in tandem with the rise of social media (quite the contrary). Social media are crucial tools to fund raising and political mobilisation as we have seen in the past American election (where youth voting was much higher than in Canada’s last federal election).

On a final note, it is worth taking a look at the socioeconomic demographics (i.e., income and education) underlying today’s ‘social mediaphiles’. In the past, Internet consumption was positively associated with socioeconomic status (SES) and labour force outcome. Our most recent labour force study, however, suggests that high social media consumers now display lower SES and are faring more poorly in the labour market.

In the past year, Allan Gregg delivered a penetrating and courageous critique of the current government where he likened the current regime’s strategy to political techniques evident in the nightmarish world of 1984. While applauding this speech, I would demur on the reference to Orwell and the notion that individual rights have been usurped in the service of totalitarian control (I do agree heartily with the assault on reason theme).

Instead, I return to Neil Postman’s seminal 1985 book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. In this work Postman argues that it is Huxley’s’ Brave New World which is a more prescient dystopia than Orwell’s 1984. The citizen surrenders their rights unconsciously in a never ending pursuit of mindless entertainment.

Perhaps social media has become the soma of the twenty-first century.

Click here for the full report: Looking Backward – Part 3 (January 3, 2013)

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