// Patrick Louis

Internet: Medium For Communication, Medium For Narrative Control

The Artifacts And Spaces: Social Media And The Democratization Of Speech

It is clad in seven robes or skins (tunicas), to which the seven planetary spheres correspond in the macrocosm. The Cabalists connected this ten part structure of the eye with the Sephiroth. The blind spot was a term applied to the high Sephira "Kether", the crown, or the divine void in all things.

  • Internet: Medium For Communication, Medium For Narrative Control
  • Part 1 — The Artifacts and Spaces
  • Section 2 — Social Media And the Democratization Of Speech
Table Of Content
  • Efficiency
  • Democratization of Speech and Removal of Gatekeepers
  • Intersection of Social and Media Space
  • Infotainment And Overton Window
  • Anonymity, Automation, And The Role Of Platforms
  • It’s About Us

With the advent of smartphones, social media platforms are on the rise. Let’s step back and try to understand what social media are, not by citing events and instances happening on the different platforms, nor the countless consequences but by describing the characteristics of this new informational channel. We’ll go over the rest later but let’s take some distance for now.

A media is an outlet or tool used to deliver information. Before social media, this term most often referred to mass media communication such as newspaper, cinema, advertising, political speech, printing press, etc..
In contrast, social media are platforms hosted on the internet that facilitate the creation, engagement, and sharing of information between the average person and virtual communities. It relies on simulating aspects of social interactions.
Social media is the mix of media space and social space.

As a media, it stands out for its efficiency. This is characterized by numerous people on the platforms, high spreading speed, massive amount of information available, and the long-lasting lifetime of this information.

According to a Facebook’s statistics, there are 2.8 billion monthly active users on the platform. Pew research also shows that, in 2019 in the USA, Facebook was used by 69% of adults, while YouTube was used by 73% of them. Additionally, Worldwide statistics of the same year (2019) show that people spend on average 2 and a half hours a day on social media. These massive penetration rates are clear indicators of how social media have taken part in the lives of many.
The platforms rely on a network effect to attract and create social hubs — The more the people on a platform, the more others will want to join it. This is the inherent social aspect, that’s why we also call them “social networks”.
Consequently, any information circulating on the popular social media could benefit from exposure that no other medium has.

The exposure is complemented with an instantaneous spread, a fast pass-it on effect. The engagement of users allowing the fast sharing of information. Quickly creating an amplification of the message, letting it travel through social circles that would’ve never been reached before — a wider transmission that breaks distances.

Another fitness criteria is how enduring and suitable the storage media is. The internet has a long-lasting memory, by the time the message is out it will have been copied and stored in multiple places. It will be almost impossible to erase.

These three criteria: exposure, speed, and memory, break previous media standards. However, to exploit this new medium successfully the information sent through it needs to adapt symbiotically to the ecosystem and niche in which it exists. If it is hostile, the information won’t be transmitted.
For example, the message will need to take in consideration the augmented Chinese Whisper effect taking place due to the speed and social aspects.

Another component that needs to be considered in the social media space, is the infobesity, also known as the infoxication phenomenon. The information is long-lasting, as we said, and accumulates over time. The users of the social media are overloaded with them.
The senders of mass messages will have to keep this in mind and craft their messages appropriately to penetrate social media. Indeed, the people on the platforms will never be able to consume all that is presented to them, and have to be picky with what they choose to process.

These are all indicators of the scale that the internet platforms, particularly social platforms, have and their potential use.
Most importantly, they have dethroned traditional mainstream media gatekeepers and allowed the common people to reach a wide audience, bypassing filters and safeguards.

In the past, there were two main ways to get information: through peers or through traditional media.
With peers, we’d learn about the world events through their stories, rumors, and anecdotes.
Traditional media, as the only other source, were subject to different types of manipulation. To protect the public and stand as gatekeepers of truth they erected journalism standards, free press, fact checking, and other types of regulation present in multiple countries.
At least that’s the theory. It remains ambiguous if traditional media are still influenced, controlled, and driven by ideological stances or corporate incentives.

Nowadays, we are presented with an alternative: the ordinary person as a media producer and filter. On social media, we aren’t subject to the standards and safeguards that mainstream media have.
People democratically filter and promote the news, ideas, and information that they consider important. The majority decides what is relevant and what isn’t. The phenomenon is similar to conversations with friends being converted from one-to-one into one-to-many, an amplification of decentralized voices. These voices are driven by an appeal to emotions and popularity, and not by reason, deliberations, qualifications, backgrounds, incentives, history, or others.
These are the messages that pierce through.

It is now frequent that mainstream media accentuate the legitimacy and credibility of social media by regurgitating their news from the different platforms. This can be interpreted as a confirmation and encouragement for participating on them.

The generation and distribution of media has been made effortless. Anyone can easily take part in it. This is the will of the actors owning the platforms, which we’ll see in another section.
The availability of digital equipment makes it a breeze to edit, write, capture, record, and film content.
The public is socially rewarded for their engagement, be it sharing, commenting, producing, or distributing. The usual social rules are in places such as wishing for fame or conforming and belonging to a community. We’ll also discuss in depth the psychological aspects in another section.
In sum, the public discourse on social media is a new place where the creation of narratives about events happens, and where they are discovered.

The digital platforms are also social places used for cultural, personal, and intimate relationships. This combines senses of trust and familiarity along with individualization and personality.

People maintain profiles on social media, facades of their personality that they mold with the aim of displaying it to an audience. The platforms normally allow for the customization and individualization of what can be interacted with, is recommended, and the style and types of messages received. It goes both ways: the person forms the virtual persona they want, and the digital platform assists in surrounding that persona with an environment that will foster it within boundaries.
Practically, that means the social media user will have personalized news and media, and interact with others, according to how they portray themselves.

Furthermore, the individualization, along with the fact that other users on the platform might already have social bonds with the person outside the digital space, induce feelings of trust and familiarity. However, this is complemented with an inability to establish new organic social bonds through social media — we aren’t able to connect deeply. We feel closer, yet further.
Familiarity is also felt through the repetition of the customized messages targeted for the particular persona.

As with any type of social place where communication happens, conversations will touch topics that conflict across cultures.
Just like mainstream media newspapers could be leaning toward different points of view, now everyone on social media reiterate their ideologies. An outer expression and clash of the inner confused and unaddressed stances of our societies and cultures.

Unquestionably, the most favored topic, the one driving the most engagement, is politics. Social media are the hubs for political discussions. According to Pew Research Center, 39% of adults in the USA used social media solely for political purposes. Interacting with media that has political meaning, which translates into “liking”, sharing, reposting, discussing, creating political posts.

Interestingly, social media are positioned between socialization, entertainment, and information consumption. For a vast majority of users political interaction has turned into infotainment, information sharing as entertainment. A caricaturization of politics, reducing political acts to quick and easy bona fide participation on social platforms — What is called hashtag activism or slacktivism.

Along with the overload of information and the democratic filter, users will indirectly encounter all types of conflicting ideas while browsing to entertain themselves. These having spread exactly because they interpolated the engagement of so many others.
The types of information that usually stand out are the ones that challenge our ideologies and culture, as we said. These types of messages can pierce through.

Some theory implies that because divergent views exists at the same time on social media, this latter is akin to low-context societies.
High-context mode are the communications that happen with an inner-group, including the subtle codes, traditions, and meanings. While low-context mode are the communications that are straight forward, reducing ambiguity, flat, and global.

This can be what some call an information society, a society in which creating, manipulating, and sharing of information is central. The people being part of this society would then be digital citizens.

We are having an incredibly difficult time adapting to this new medium, now that everyone has an equal voice.
We still refuge ourselves in different cocoons that collide in parody-like confrontations with one another. Again, a reflection of our own cultural weaknesses, our cultural insecurities.

These bubbles then can only be pierced through by more extreme content and ideas that will travel further. That means we are moving the Overton Window — the ideas tolerated in public discourse. Fringe ideas on social media are the ones that are heard the most and might be accepted as normal. The medium having voted democratically that this was what the majority voted as relevant.

Obviously, the votes are not all done by real human beings, the platforms have their share of responsibilities and reasons to promote certain types of discourse that drive engagement, as we’ll see soon.
This reminds us of the nudge theory and persuasive tech we’ve learned about in the previous section and how it could only be achieved when an actor has full control of the environment; This is the case with most social media. They can, and do, deliberately create digital environments that users feel fulfill their basic human drives.

Hiding the actors affect the messages greatly, this is done in two ways: anonymity and automation.
The use of persona that aren’t attached to real individuals let people express themselves without restraints. This attracts bitter views and clashes, as people can now break the accepted cultural codes.
These anonymized profiles can then be automated by algorithms, what we call bots, and exchange with other social media users to promote a message. Consequentially, cheating the democratization of speech and artificially creating a public opinion by giving importance to selected ideas.
We referred to these autonomous agents as computational propaganda in the previous section. Statistics show that around 40% of the traffic on social media is composed of these autonomous agents. We’ll explore later the incentives of the actors.

Let’s finally mention that there are different types of social media platforms. Some have specific rules, some are only used to share a single type of media, some are centralized, some are decentralized, some are anonymous, some require identification, some are more fringe than others, etc..
Social media have all the essential components we’ve described, but they are mainly guided by the platforms themselves. They are new instruments, new tools in our hands.

That is why some persons start to see social media as public utilities, even though they are far from it. A public utility being “an infrastructural necessity for the general public where the supply conditions are such that the public may not be provided with a reasonable service at reasonable prices because of monopoly in the area.” For that, a governing body will need to be erected and have monopoly over the social media in place and justify them being a necessity.

Overall, the medium reveals more about the people than about itself. It is how we use it that matters and the confusion we feel could be a manifestation of our own confusion. Or is it?

This concludes our review of what social media are as new communication channels. We’ve first seen its efficiency characteristics: huge reach, high speed, reliability. Then we’ve contemplated how it has broken the walls of the mainstream media gatekeepers and putting the keys of the castle in the hands of the common person. Later we’ve seen how it intertwines a social space with a media space, including al our cultural issues and how we want constant entertainment. Next, we’ve described how hard it is for the information to pierce through and how that increases extremeness in the messages to actually reach us. And finally, we’ve discussed anonymity and automation as ways to cheat the pseudo-democratic process that is supposed to happen on social media to elect what is important and what isn’t.

Table Of Content


Attributions: Gregor Reisch, Pretiosa Margarita, Freiburg, 1503; Basle, 1508

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