0572 – how social media affects people’s engagement

J asks: Has the emergence of social media – text, images, and video, made the internet more like passive entertainment or has it enabled more people to actively interact?

Wow, a question after my own heart. As I’ve written a couple of times, I’m a child of the Internet – I first encountered it when I was about 7, fell in love with the idea of all sorts of online communities and forums about every imaginable topic, wanted to have my own website, and then my own blog, and then went on to witness and participate in social media. And I have some feelings about how the internet has developed from what it was then to what it is now.

The short answer to the question has to be “both”. The internet has progressively become something easier to participate in. Initially, if you even wanted to get involved, you were going to have to setup all the hardware and then all the software, figure out your modem settings, and then your IP address and whatnot. Then you’d have to figure out web hosting, make your own website or forum, and getting involved involved a lot of work. So everybody who was involved was necessarily very active.

As more and more people came online though, it became easier than ever to get involved. After a while it became easier to start blogs, so there were more people who casually started blogs. And now it’s even easier to post facebook statuses (you don’t need to build an audience through engagement, because your social ties are brought into the picture), to take pictures and videos. And there’s so much content now being produced (I think there are like several days worth of video uploaded to youtube every second) that it’s also easier than ever to be a passive observer.

Let’s recap again– there’s so much content that it’s easy to be a passive observer, but it’s also so easy to produce content that it’s easy to be an active participant. And I think everyone is by default a passive observer of the goings-on around them at (almost) all times, usually processing that information internally somehow, and sometimes that stuff comes out– either through deliberate creative acts, or sometimes just inadvertently in conversation or even on a comments section of some Facebook page, or on reddit. (There’s a Ray Bradbury quote about how, if you ask an average man the right question, he turns into a poet.)

One interesting thing, I suppose, is that even in its “passive entertainment” state, the internet is still more interactive and variable than TV and radio used to be. You get to choose what pages you want to Like on Facebook, or what subreddits you subscribe to, so you get to “express yourself”, to yourself, in the way you curate your information feeds.

That said, I don’t know if the internet inspires people to get more active in their engagement with media. It’s easy to find data that confirms your hunch either way– it’s easy to find people who are more engaged than ever, and it’s easy to find people who are more disengaged than ever (probably because of information overload– there’s so much of it, and you can never get to all of it, and you can’t comment on everything, you can’t have an informed opinion on everything…). At the same time there are entire new media organizations being built from scratch, and ordinary people becoming influential and significant (I hate the phrase ‘thought leader’, but i suppose we can use that here for now.)

What’s interesting about the “data can confirm your hunch either way” scenario is– first, it could be true that there’s a global answer. That if you mapped out all the users of the internet, you might find that most people are becoming more passive than before, and that the pool of engaged individuals is small. I think that’s pretty unlikely– there’s just so much stuff being created that it seems fair to assume that there’s more people creating it than ever before. People are literally leaving home to go to places where famous youtubers and Vine-rs live, so they can collaborate with one another. The social media star is the new rock star.

But second, the global answer might not actually be globally relevant. By that I mean– it could be that more people are being active participants than ever (my personal impression), but that might not be your experience. Your experience might be that everyone around you is being ridiculously bleary-eyed in their passive consumption. And it’s definitely true that the internet is more addictive and engaging than any previous type of media, so if a person is somehow biased or compelled to be a passive consumer, they’re “worse” off with the Internet– or rather they’d be spending more time and energy passively consuming than before.

I try to be hopeful and idealistic. I’d like to believe that not only does active participation inspire and beget more active participation, but that with good design, the right nudges and cues, we can encourage the normally passive to get involved, too. And yes, I’m not hesitant to make value judgements here– I think there’s…

  1. good active participation (thoughtful, open, encouraging, challenging)
  2. bad active participation (nasty, spiteful, trolling, hate speech, abuse)
  3. neutral passive consumption
  4. bad passive consumption (doesn’t affect others, but it’s suboptimal for the individual consumer)

We’d want to encourage 1, and discourage 2 and 4. 3 is a natural thing to be expected; nobody can be expected to be actively participating in everything all the time– and the people who do do that usually tend to be from category 2. I think these are things worth doing, because… it’s like the tragedy of the commons in the realm of civic participation, right? If everyone was decently informed and voted in every election, then we’d have better political outcomes. Similarly, if everyone was decently informed and decently engaged, then we’d improve our thinking, achieve our goals better, blah blah blah.

But it’s an uphill battle, because our biology and culture both seem to be working against us on this. Hopefully we see substantial progress in our lifetimes.

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