Saturday, December 10, 2016

Words v. Videos and Images

What is the internet? A short answer might be: "everything!"

But as I intentionally try to step back from Facebook and Twitter as outlets for simply sharing links to articles that I've read or find interesting, I'm struck by the challenge to do so. I am a little more selective in sharing articles of interest and relevance to contemporary conversations, but it's addictive to stay in the game. This is where everyone is and social media seems to be the platform of choice for a variety of reasons.

What really got me thinking about this was an article in the MIT Technology Review by Hossein Derakhshan. Building on a recent post and the challenge of seeing the world through not only one's preferred and often myopic worldview, the point Derakhshan makes is that social media has become more like watching TV rather than reading a magazine or essay. It seems we've all been taken by the visual and entertaining nature and allure of GIFs, videos from last night's late night entertainers, and data visualization.

This brings me back to Derakhshan. He writes:

If I say that social media aided Donald Trump’s election, you might think of fake news on Facebook. But even if Facebook fixes the algorithms that elevate phony stories, there’s something else going on: social media represents the ultimate ascendance of television over other media. 
I've been warning about this since November 2014, when I was freed from six years of incarceration in Tehran, a punishment I received for my online activism in Iran. Before I went to prison, I blogged frequently on what I now call the open Web: it was decentralized, text-centered, and abundant with hyperlinks to source material and rich background. It nurtured varying opinions. It was related to the world of books. 
Then for six years I got disconnected; when I left prison and came back online, I was confronted by a brave new world. Facebook and Twitter had replaced blogging and had made the Internet like TV: centralized and image-centered, with content embedded in pictures, without links.
I can recall my experience of the internet before Facebook existed, particularly as it related to newsworthy issues. Pre-Facebook and News Feeds, we had AOL Instant Messenger for chatting back and forth within our dorms and with people far and wide. That's not all that different from the ease of Facebook Messenger today, but those conversations were not embedded within an experience of a News Feed and knowing what that other person was looking at, "liking," and commenting on. If I was chatting on AIM, I was communicating with you without knowing what you were looking at on your equally clunky Dell, HP, or Compaq desktop computer. There was a degree of privacy and autonomy that has largely disappeared. To know what you thought about social issues required me to know you, to talk with you. If I interact with someone on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, it is nearly impossible not to know their political views and some of the more intimate elements of their lives simply because social media encourages (pushes) us to share and consume constantly.

My consumption of news during that earlier phase of life was distinctly different. I went directly to the New York Times and (the then) MSNBC. To read news stories I had to find news stories. Now it comes to me in an endless stream.

I've always appreciated long-form journalism and the depth that comes from such work. As we collectively continue to embrace quick and immediately consumable media, I remain committed to--ideally, even more so now--to the written word with depth, substance, and necessary complexity, rather than the more consumable, shareable, simple, and often wrong answers to our most pressing problems. This also points to the importance of talking about these complex issues with people, ideally with differing and competing understandings and interpretations. One of biggest concerns is that we don't have many of these spaces, whether in real life or on a platform such as Facebook. How do we have conversations that are substantive and not simply combative? That's a question I struggle to answer.

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