2016 has been a year of significant and uncelebrated milestones which, whether we have acknowledged them or not, serve as a reminder of the fundamental shifts that are redefining how we deal with information. Even the most devoted users of social media platforms, during their time spent head-bowed and nose-buried in blue light, might not have appreciated that Twitter, launched a decade ago on March 21, 2006, turned ten years old. On September 26 of that same year, Facebook—Twitter’s more pervasive elder sibling—officially opened registration to everyone of thirteen years and older and, since that time, have both stood at the vanguard of virtual expression, connection and communication. Facebook, the more viable of the two, has either bred, bought or is competing with every other popular platform of note (think of Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp) to establish an entire world of territories for presentation and reflection. The skill of professional broadcasting has become no less than an instrument of survival.
Social interaction on the Web, which has collapsed relationships between organisations and individuals, has been almost universally embraced for two reasons. The first is simple: without platforms like Twitter and Facebook—and here we might add Snapchat (the first transient media platform), WeChat (‘Weibo’, in China), VK (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) and Alphabet’s suite of tools to the mix—the fluidity of sharing that exists today would be impossible. The second reason is less simple to define: without a Like, a Favourite or a double-tap a post, for most, is considered to have failed. To save face one might delete the post altogether; the process of self-curation begins. This new reality, while harmless in itself, has fascinating implications in the wider media landscape.
To begin at the beginning, we must consider the core ideal of the World Wide Web: open access to information – the notion that everyone, be they in Tulsa or Timbuktu, can retrieve the same data on demand to stay informed, to relay messages, or to be entertained. While we have, on the whole, been remarkably successful in realising this objective, the frameworks we have to maintain it are fragile in ways that we might not at first consider. Following true Orwellian augury, some online voices are deemed more equal than others: Verification, for example—the process by which a platform authenticates an online persona irrespective of the number of Fans, Followers or Likes it or they have accrued2—is a tool deployed by social platforms which forges hierarchies in and beyond the digital sphere. While the little blue badge has become a highly coveted talisman for what it stands for (authenticity), the mechanisms behind its fount of honour—the likes of Twitter and Facebook—are opaque, relatively undefined, and privately controlled.
Ostensibly playful gimmicks of this sort run the risk of developing more sinister undertones under our very noses. Many recognise that governments in countries such as the PRC (China), the DPRK (North Korea), Burma, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Tunisia and Turkmenistan openly monitor and survey, to varying degrees, all internal and global Internet traffic between, from and to their citizens. Most people living outside of these bubbles understand that this is not good for the majority of people living under this sort of surveillance; these same people, however, do not necessarily appreciate that this sort of modus operandi is far closer to home than they might at first realise.3 As the Web gradually matures from floundering infancy (2000-2013) into awkward adolescence (2014-), the question that we should look to frame revolves around this fledgling reality. How ethically conscious and morally tolerant do we want the Internet to be?
Two recent political upturns, each with international implications, serve as indicators. ‘Brexit’—the in-out referendum posed to British citizens on whether or not to abandon the European Union in the summer of this year—was defined by the Web. For those in the Remain camp, any notion of secession from the EU felt, for a long time, implausible. Those who supported the Leave campaign similarly felt that the majority of voters were on their side. The geographical isolation of opinion across the British Isles—London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain; the rest of England and Wales voted to Leave—was delineated by social interaction – interaction mediated through social media. Echo chambers of opinion, cultivated by concealed algorithms and curated through our individual actions, meant that few were exposed to, or argued their point with, someone with a different point of view. By a simple click or a tap the opposition could be hidden, unfollowed, or blocked entirely from view. And so we reverberate around our own artificially filtered discourses.
The United States have witnessed a larger, more extreme, and far more complex case. The 2016 Presidential election between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton represented a paradigm shift in whose voices can be heard, as well as whose voices are listened to. While both candidates employed Communication Directors, Trump also had a Director of Social Media, Daniel Scavino. His work involved “using Twitter to post images and videos covering Trump’s campaign rallies and for attacking Hillary Clinton, including rapid responses.”4 The secret is in the final clause of his job description – in spite of using Twitter as a vehicle for inflammatory, racist, sexist, false and bigoted accusatory remarks Trump’s campaign (the mechanisms by which he spread his message) felt, by many, to be more in touch with how they live their lives.5
Open access to information remains, therefore, inherently problematic. In an interview published by MIT’s Decentralized Information Group in 2006, Sir Tim Berners-Lee—the creator of the World Wide Web—argued that any form of regulation imposed to keep the Internet ‘open’ is regulation nonetheless. “Democracy depends on freedom of speech,” he said. “Freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, is the fundamental social basis of the Internet, and, now, the society based on it.”6 If we are living through the golden age of access to information, the ‘democratising data deluge’ must be read for what it is: cascades of data and networked communication that individuals, online platforms, media organisations and governments are each steadily coming to terms with. We should remember, and value, that the most astonishing miracle of the Internet is that it exists. The second most astonishing is that it persists.