Are social media valuable to society?

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.

This entry was posted in All, Social practices, Streams, Twitter and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Steve Evans

    Social media's value seems to be getting overshadowed by its fame right now. It's the same as any comms method, it helps people connect, stay in touch, share news and info and broadcast their thoughts and feelings.

    Its benefits are much more obvious in developing countries around the world as you can almost map social media use to community behaviour. It's almost a bush telegraph; it's how people keep in touch with what's going on in their village and find help and assistance (or answers). Very similar to forum communities or newsgroups in the 90's.

    The benefits are the same to developed communities, just not so obvious as their often overshadowed by poking :-)

  • aslevin

    Are these patterns new, or are they just more visible now that they are online, and visible through an explicitly articulated social network online, and searchable? News has been about the new, fire flood murder and war since the invention of newspapers; and talk has included chatter about the timely, the scandal, the season's popular opera or jitterbug. Is depth more difficult and rare now, or has it always been difficult and rare? Twitter and Facebook aren't the media for deep conversation, but what does the increased surface area do to trigger opportunities for it in other forms?

  • gravity7

    I think the patterns specific to media are new, even if they may appear to be just variations on a theme. I could just quote McLuhan and say that “the medium is the message.” Fact is that I have already exceeded 140 characters, so this response, which so far includes a personal response addressed to your first question, a reference to an authority, a quote, and then clarification specific to my commentary on twitter, already exceeds what I could have communicated on twitter. As your comment also exceeds what you may have been able to communicate on twitter.

    A tweet may have more likely been an RT, or a brief expression of agreement, or a leading question. To which my responses would have been constrained somewhat a) by the gist of your tweet, b) by the 140 character limit, c) by my interest in trying to go deep on twitter, d) my sensitivity to going deep in front of followers who are mere bystanders for whom I e) may feel that it is uncool to geek out too intellectually with one person f) causing me to possibly lose followers, abuse their experience of twitter, or influence my “appearance.”

    So the medium's conversational architecture does influence interaction. If twitter had a digg or Like button, I could bookmark without having to retweet. It would then be possible for twitter to collect trending Likes. But of course we'd lose the retweet's function of not only citing a tweeted statement/link, but also it's tacit expression of interest person to person.

    If it had a Question form, I could ask questions and answers could be threaded and captured on a page. If these had votes, better more popular answers might appear higher, and those might then be surfaced in Q/A forum search results. I might then become invested in answering questions on a particular topic. My expertise, validated or qualified by audience approva (votes, Likes, ratings) might then qualify me for a position on a List. I might change my tweeting behavior as a result.

    Or, if comments were live, as LiveFyre is making possible, for example, I might have written just a fraction of this reply and waited instead for a response from another user. If live commentary were tweeted in order to pull in even more discussants, I might then switch to moderator mode, with the ability to approve or reject live comments. I could then steer conversation, and bring it to a close when I wanted to.

    And so on… Media are specific, and specifying.

    As to what people talk about, sure, there are things that don't seem to change, regardless of new technologies and tools. But I think we should recognize that the unique manner in which our tools today permit us to establish a particular kind of presence, seek and capture audiences, become invested in our appearance/reputation/celebrity/etc in ways that work for us (and we are different), and engage all make a difference.

    Fact is that a lot of people don't tweet, and among those who do, deeper conversation (such as this) is simply stymied by the medium's specificity of design. Changes to design may not result in higher order thinking and conversation. But they would make a difference.

    My sense is that in the “old days,” blog commentary like this would get more attention. Twitter does steal attention away from this kind of blog posting/conversation because it's where the audience is. So there is an effect. We need only look at the blogosphere to recognize that just as social media have been parasitic to professional journalism, twitter is parasitic to blogging (and sure, media are parasitic to oral history, tv is parasitic to film, and so on — parasitic meaning an extension of form and practice, not necessarily “negatively” so).

  • gravity7

    Good points — you bring up use cases in which celebrity is not as much in the forefront, and where face to face community is stronger, tighter, and a more salient constraint on the medium's uses.

  • aslevin

    Agree about the relationship between the architecture of conversational tools and the types of conversation that are fostered. There are affordances not yet developed that do a better job of tying together attention-gathering, quick comment, and deeper discussion, I very strongly suspect.

    The particular scenario could be subject to ethnography. There is a sphere of public quasiprofessional conversation that 15 years ago would have been behind paywalls, less publicly visible (listservs) or unwritten, or much slower (episodic dialog in journals and periodicals). Five years ago the conversation would have taken place in blogs and commentary. And today twitter and facebook are used to draw attention to posts and conversations. In my experience stream tools to serve to draw attention to posts and comments, so that there is if anything more discussion. But it is harder to focus because of the volume and the illusion of the importance of immediacy. This is mere personal experience, a sample would be interesting across a range of quasiprofessional discourse; for example there is very interesting live conversation about the ongoing evolution of science blogging and interaction with stream media.

    The metaphor could be explored, what is parasitic, what interloper consumes its host and turns its behavior against its own interest, and what is symbiotic, creating a richer ecosystem where a diversity of organisms grow and thrive?