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Pondering the universe


Social media

Hijacking our insecurities

People often seek to communicate as a means of validation. Social media celebrates and encourages that, but not in a way that serves us.

Throughout history, disenfranchised groups of people had no means of gaining recognition. Artists in various mediums had to rely upon royal patronage and later wealthy patrons, and writing was the province of religious institutions. The only other avenue for public expression was graffiti, which was limited in reach and endurance.

The coming of the printing press offered a relatively low-cost and speedy way to promote the interests of those repressed by autocratic governments and institutions, but even that came to be dominated by a few individuals as the distribution needed organisations with the funds and reliable logistics to reach masses of people. That necessarily involved suppression of any ideas that would challenge the privilege of the owners and others of their class. Fortunately, ideas did get through, but lowly individuals still did not get much reach.

The internet promised a far more democratic access to the means to communicate, and the world-wide web offered the opportunity for almost anyone to publicly display their ideas on their own website. However, both these required a fair degree of technical ability to make happen. Social media provides platforms where most of the technical details have been taken care off, so that people can just write and load up pictures without having to have any significant skills.

Now people can just freely draw attention to themselves, trying to stand out in a very crowded space. Social media companies all use basically the same popularity-based algorithms to feed their members so that the most aggressively self-seeking reach the largest audience. It has become a celebration of prostituting ourselves in a popularity contest for the minds of the distracted who will forget us when they turn away and get on with their lives. Social media fosters viral irrelevance.

However, social media sites have to make money, and having offered their platforms for free, have marketed what they know about their members for the highest bidder, being mostly those with big budgets, like corporations and governments, presenting them with the means to hijack the attention of masses to what they wanted them to be focusing upon. In this paradigm, individuals are only useful if they serve to promote the wishes of the biggest funders.

In this way, social media has become a propaganda tool for the wealthy, in the same way newspapers did before. Through corporate sponsorships, self-serving individuals have been harvested as the faces of that propaganda, swamping the feeds of the masses with it. Lies and misinformation are now the news for most uses of the platforms as the opaque algorithms stuff them with what they supposedly want to hear, but tacitly supporting what the payers of the propaganda want people to believe.

As with the printing press, ideas counter to the popularised propaganda still get through, and so can plant the seeds of thought that can undermine the propaganda. But they are facing an uphill battle. While having one's own website is supposedly the ultimate way of avoiding suppression, when the most popular search engine on the planet is actively hiding almost all of the pages of small sites, most pages of larger ones, and only showing most for the largest websites, getting ideas through all the propaganda is still difficult.

Social media has hijacked our desire for validation into a weapon against us by turning that desire into fawning over celebrities that only serve to maintain the status quo of massive wealth inequality and suppression of ideas that would challenge that. We are offered the chance to express ourselves but swamped with propaganda that pushes us to trivialise our lives and accept our societal impotence. We get to piss in the wind and have it blow back on us to show us how insignificant we are.

All this sounds rightfully pessimistic, except that some governments are seeking to make social media sites more accountable for the adverse societal effects they create. But it has to go further. While having our own websites is easier than before, search engine providers must be made to treat all sites fairly, and that means listing all their pages, so at least all ideas, even if not popular now, will have a chance to enter into the popular consciousness and have a chance of shifting the directions of our societies.

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