Many have noted the decline and fall of print and professional journalism. Some point their fingers at social media, or at the internet in general. There’s truth to this, although there are economic and business reasons, too (for which the internet gets some share of blame).
But if social media, and the internet in general, have sped up and socialized news distribution, rendering print a relative dinosaur in an age of accelerated media consumption, we should ask the deeper cultural question: What value is created by social media’s role in the production and distribution of news? What is the value, social and cultural, of faster news, of the vast system of headlines and citations (e.g. sharing, retweeting, etc), of one-click votes and Likes, and of realtime awareness?
I have written on this in the past, but not with an eye to the relationship between news and knowledge. Not with an eye to the role played by social media in the production of information and the transformation, by social means, of information into a stock of cultural knowledge.
Social media, because they distribute news by means of social activity (thin as it may be, and self-centered as it often is), transforms information into talk. But there are may kinds of talk, from gossip and hearsay to discussion and even argumentation. The world of social media is a very affirmative world — Likes but no Dislikes; votes but a bias to the trending and the popular; comments but little conversation.
The intrinsic relationship of talk on social media to the attention seeking efforts of its users introduces a bias: a bias mitigated by the brand authority of print, and the separation of journalism from the business of circulation. In social media these are conflated. The very act of tweeting is at the same time an act seeking circulation.
Does this bias undermine the medium’s ability to create value, to make us smarter, wiser, or more knowledegable? Does it undermine our ability to think, or better, to relate our thoughts, conceive of new ideas, and most importantly, make the decisions that result in a higher quality of life, and a culture that nourishes it?
The acceleration of news delivery towards its degree zero — instantaneity — is a historical and technical inevitability. It belongs to the very reality of news itself. The newest news is the news that just arrived now. No news could be sooner, or faster, than this news now. Now is the zero point of news. When it comes to news, realtime is just another way of saying Now.
News seeks ever faster speeds. “This just in” announces new news, redundant as it may sound. Our culture, for better or worse, places a high value on the novelty of news, the newness of news, the “newsworthiness of now.” As the media’s staple ingredient, however, it’s an empty calorie. Fuel good enough for baseline metabolic functioning, but little more.
News value begins by selecting information that is newsworthy. When deemed to be newsworthy, news is issued as news and its novelty makes it so. In this way a piece of information acquires an additional value, a cultural valence (it’s news!), from which it attracts attention and by order of which it is set into distribution. The audience — that’s us — which receives or observes news, circulates it further, in a fashion as old as the art of storytelling itself.
In the mass media, this news has authority, as news told by news-making authorities. It is not truth, goodness, virtue, help, or some other value that makes it authoritative (worth attending to, and accepting as real and valuable). But in social media, this news becomes social fact. It becomes a piece of content (information) whose additional value is its social facticity: a claim raised by means of mediated speech or talk, but just that — a factual claim.
A social fact is information that, by being news validated socially (by its travels through social media), exists as fact because it has been observed. Social observation online involves posting, tweeting, re-tweeting, linking, and so on — but first, observation (paying attention). Social facts come into existence in this way — and once in existence, can accrue a life story according to their ability to survive and persist past being new news.
The social fact established in social media makes no claim to authority but instead, having been spoken (tweeted), inherits the value added by its speaker. This is why we believe in influence, as followers or as those invested in having it.
Media, by definition, create reality. They do this in part by covering real events, of course, but in their coverage they produce a reality of their own. One that is observed, interpreted, and narrated by the medium in the course of production. And observed, interpreted and narrated in turn by audiences tuned in.
The question then becomes: If mass and social media both serve to produce and circulate news in realtime (their respective means of doing so being increasingly less distinct), what is knowledge? What is it to be informed, and what is the relationship between information, being informed, and being knowledgeable? Having more information does not make us better informed. Having more information sooner only makes us more quickly informed, but again, not necessarily better.
At what point then does a culture produce knowledge from information? How is knowledge created from news?
It would seem that knowledge should be more than fact, more than news. That it ought to have validity for what it claims. That it make a claim upon the individual on the basis of being valid, for reasons that connect to more than what has been claimed. This is a philosophical point, and if you don’t believe in the value of rational thought, is but a footnote.
Speaking philosophically, however, the value of a claim raised is in its validity for speaker and listener. The validity of a claim to which speaker and listener accept, if not agree to, the reasons that validate the claim, not only results in an acceptable fact. It results in a relationship between speaker and listener. This is immeasurably valuable, for it raises talk from idle chit chat to a form of interaction that can bind its participants to one another. It makes the magical art of conversation.
Only claims that can be accepted or rejected as being agreeable fall into this category — statements not of fact (which are true or false), but of validity (which are right or wrong). Knowledge would be information that is not just true, but which is useful because it can bind people by means of agreement about something beyond the recognition of fact.
That something is the mutual recognition of individuals engaged in a tradition without which we would wither: talk that not only creates its content but which also supplies feelings exchanged voluntarily between people who agree to spend some time giving each other their attention.
This experience is not merely valuable because it is social. In binding people for a stretch of time, and in producing a sense of mutual acceptance (if the claims are valid, speaker and listener are validated also — hence the magic), the interpersonal and social relations formed accrue value valid in the future. We create a future, project our hopes, anticipations, and expectations, and involve others in them, because of this. Not because of information, content, or fact. But because of a kind of claim (to shared validity) by means of which we can now make choices.
This is all there is to society. Individuals capable of getting along, on the basis of what they know, knowing too that others can accept what they know and thus accept them, too. All of this comes about by means of communication, or talk.
If talk is essential to society and its reproduction, does the talk enabled by social media raise the value of of shared cultural stock of knowledge? The stuff in which we trade in order to also maintain our relationships? The stuff whose value not only makes us a specific society, and its cultures and subcultures, but also the all important trust and respect that make us capable of choosing and acting?
In the midst of the realtime revolution, and the rapid acceleration of news, do we become more knowledgeable? Does the realtime web accelerate the production of knowledge? Or does it just speed up the distribution of news, and lend a hand in surfacing and establishing what constitutes the social facts of our online worlds?
We might conjecture that realtime detracts from the sustained attention and effort demanded of knowledge production, by distraction as well as by sheer noise and confusion. Or we might suppose that realtime is simply the power law at work, and a means in some cases of vetting and surfacing the social facts that matter — after which perhaps knowledge forms along the tail.
This is an open question, and I don’t take sides and can see the merits of either perspective. But there is also a third possibility. It is that the distribution of news in realtime, rapidly and broadly laying down layer upon layer of social sediment not only grounds mediated social realities but also supplies communication with opportunities for connection. It would then be the case that connections among social media users matter as much as what they talk about. The question would then be: how strong are the connections? For the question to raise about any audience is always: How can it be moved, and what is it capable of?
Perhaps, by means of this third possibility, social news serves as a vehicle for relating and connecting. A common stock of information with which to discuss the stuff that really matters. The notion would then be that news has value as a form, for it is helping to build a shared cultural language — a requirement all the more acute in open and diversified populations like those of social media. Such that when events and of consequence occur, communication already has its legs.
But it is also possible that social media creates its own reality, one valuable for those engaged with it, marginally valuable to those who don’t, and worth observing by mass media and institutions for whom general and topical news needs to be monitored. Personally, I would be more comfortable with what we have built if there were more “real” conversation. And if the medium were designed to sustain this.
The bias introduced by the medium’s unique way of engaging and separating us in the sustained activity of paying each other attention can get in the way. This may be a passing phase, a consequence of how today’s tools function (twitter, in particular), and one that we are moving through as connectivity and mediated interaction become ubiquitous. But if this is the case, new tools are needed, and prior to that, demand for them must exist.