In their reporting on the recent revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, media outlets from across the political spectrum have highlighted the role played by social media, especially Twitter. They have even used the phrase ‘social media-powered’ to describe these contretemps – as if decades of stewing economic and political grievances were not the actual cause of the events, as if Twitter were not simply a somewhat more efficient mechanism for transmitting information, just as were every new communications technology since Gutenberg.
The coverage is consistent with a general streak of technology fetishism in our culture. It is an element of a wider decadence, superficial, self-indulgent, and trend-obsessed. Like most cultural phenomena, it seems to have roots in underlying economic conditions, specifically the decline of manufacturing and hard capital investment in favor of speculation, finance, and services devoted to managing and profiting from risk.
In the case of social media, the hype bears a striking similarity to that surrounding dot-coms and housing derivatives. After the spectacular collapse of the housing market in 2008, Wall Street was left with a great quantity of cheap money and no obvious place to put it. It stands to reason that social media is being talked up as the next great adventure, devil take the hindmost.
The problem with all this, aside from the possibility of creating yet another speculative bubble, is its deleterious effect on culture and serious news coverage. The already highly commercialized mainstream media reflects and reinforces the prevailing financial trends, in the process further blurring the line between news coverage and advertising.
More insidious is the general debasement of language and erosion of standards in written English. In cyberspace, rules of spelling and grammar have decayed, Internet slang has replaced proper diction, and polemical language predominates over the didactic, intellectual, and artistic forms. The nadir of this phenomenon is the blog.
Irritatingly, blogs are seen by an alarmingly large segment of the public, of whatever political persuasion, as the wave of the future, a beneficent sea-change in our way of life, a technological force majeure. Some have even postulated that the blog and related online novelties will come to entirely supplant traditional media (be it conceived as liberal, corporate, Freemason, or whatever), ushering in a new utopia of chrome, neon, and penis enlargement.
The reality is that, to the extent that they have had any impact on human society, blogs have indeed contributed to the erosion of traditional media — which actually pay reporters to gather information — while adding little but distortion and pontification, typically of the most puerile and uninformed variety. Even the best and most informative blogs are not wholly exempt from criticism.
For example, the liberal economist Paul Krugman writes a fabulous and popular column for the New York Times. He also started a blog in 2007, which is interesting and thought-provoking. However, on top of his column, it is also information overload. No one needs Paul Krugman’s opinion every single day of the week. An intermittent series of thematically related yet topically selective expatiations is quite sufficient.
Let none of these complaints impress anyone as thoroughgoing Luddism, far from it. Technological development since the Industrial Revolution has allowed millions of people to lead longer, better lives. The communications hardware and software so marveled at these days has likewise improved life in a variety of ways. It simply falls short of the revolution it is often characterized as.
Could it cure cancer, instantaneously transport matter vast distances, or produce unlimited quantities of clean, cheap energy, then perhaps the new media would live up to the hype. But alas, the Internet has made it much easier to advertise, masturbate, gamble, and mail order all manner of bric-a-brac. Social media appears to be good for facilitating the destabilization of Middle Eastern governments and staying in touch with college classmates.
Yet nobody has yet satisfactorily explained how anyone is going to sell anything on Facebook, whose stock price is based on hopes and wishes more than actual profits. Likewise, the only companies making money on the Internet are the ones that sell an actual product or service for a price. Whether reliable or not, sites that provide only information and media content have shown themselves unable to make money or sustain themselves over the long run.
The new media is not entirely frivolous, of course. There are many reputable Web sites with useful and interesting information, from Web MD to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to Project Gutenberg. It has greatly assisted business and government in streamlining supply chains and enhancing productivity. However, it will not reach its full potential to enrich culture, advance knowledge, and improve the quality of life until a reliable way can be found to pay professional information providers, as the moribund publishing and newspaper industries once did.
The most important characteristics to enhance in new media content are quality and decency. We need reliable information and verdant prose, created by professional knowledge workers whose reputations depend on adherence to strict ethical and professional standards, and who are paid as decently as the overvalued technical workers who administer the flashy hardware and software that have so transfixed our society. We need fewer blogs and more columns and feature articles, less vituperation and more analysis; in short, less bile and more meat.
The best way to do this – in fact, the only way – is for media sites to simply charge for content. This will understandably disappoint progressives, who pinned many hopes on the new media as a detour around the corporate-controlled press. However, as long as capitalism continues to dominate the Earth (admittedly a not entirely benevolent state of affairs), the only way for workers to be paid is for enterprises to charge.
If we must endure the indignities of corporate rule, as we apparently must for the immediate future, let us (among other things) favor policies to steer capital away from speculation and toward real investment. Let us, by the same token, direct our own attention and interest away from frivolous hype and fashionable trends, and toward quality, decency, substance, and truth.
Maxwell Ross is a freelance journalist from Long Island, NY.