Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Anti-social Media

November 28, 2006

The wisdom of crowds, consumer–generated ads, news importance selected by the masses… New media today is for the people, by the people. The Web employs this model with increasing saturation, but it’s not just the Web that is doing so. All media, many large businesses, and most of the newly forming cultural mechanisms are adopting this nonsense.

It’s called social media, but the result is little more than social fetish. On the whole, it is a very disappointing set of circumstances that we’re confronted with in the social media. We’re being led astray and there is a price to pay at the end.

You remember history, right? Remember that handy collection of facts and anecdotes from years gone by wherein cultures are detailed: their inception, rise, halcyon days, decadence, and their fall? You know; the helpful lessons of our distant and not so distant past that are supposed to teach us to what to avoid and how we might do so? Apparently not.

Mediocrity and Decadence

The wisdom of crowds and the related ideals cited above are largely about championing and cultivating two things: mediocrity and decadence. Don’t believe me? Well, perhaps you’re too distracted with the intended result of the social media movement; so many of us are. We should be paying more attention to the inevitable results of the specific actions and mechanisms employed. Intent is a worthless fantasy. Let’s concentrate on facts and results.

Excellence is not the sum of opinions. Excellence is not born of consensus. Excellence is by its very nature something far outside the average.

Mediocrity is the only possible result of a wide sampling of opinion or input. The only idea that can survive such a mechanism is one consistent with the lowest common denominator. The mob works to ensure that all other results are weeded out. Now, we might think that it is the highest common denominator that is promoted in this environment, but it’s just not so. The “highest” anything is largely held by the masses as being discriminatory and elitist. So only the lowest common denominator wins out. The point is that in this sort of environment excellence does not survive.

Excellence is not the sum of opinions. Excellence is not born of consensus. Excellence is by its very nature something far outside the average. In fact, not even good is found in the average. Average is comfortable. Average requires no great effort. Average requires nothing exceptional. Average anything is…, well, just mediocre.

Think about great ideas. Not good ideas or decent ideas, but great ideas. Where do they come from? Do they come from the masses? Do they come from consensus? No, they come from individuals. The masses are not out there generating a stream of great ideas. Great ideas come from singular, exceptional sparks of inspiration and deep or intuitive understanding, and they come from uncomfortable processes. The mob dislikes depth. The mob dislikes discomfort.

There is nothing about great ideas that is widely and commonly accessible. The same is true for great skill, great talent, and great quality. No, crowds neither generate nor champion great quality and great ideas. They use great ideas and take advantage of excellence, but only as a commodity.

On a very fundamental level, the masses despise excellence and have contempt for exceptional qualities, as these things are not immediately understood so they are feared. This is because they often provide stark contrast to the average quality and mediocre ideas inherent in the mob.

Consumer–generated Ads

With the advent of weblogs and their pseudo (I’d say “dysfunctional”) –community generation capabilities, business thought that it saw something to exploit: consumer involvement. Business is ever looking for the magic bullet, and in weblogs many thought they found it. Some use consumer involvement and transparency well. Others not so well, and so they flail away in blind folly.

One of the grave flaws of the growing social media and its foundational ideals is that it facilitates irresponsibility and it fuels and rewards our basest motivations. In the resulting environment we are allowed to completely disregard our subjectivity to one another.

But along the way, some businesses leapt from folly to idiocy. Since consumer involvement is a good thing, they’re not thinking, “why not let consumers decide how best to market our company!” I’ll tell you why not: because of the facts cited above. Moreover, any company that relegates its onus to generate exceptional ideas to the unpaid, unaccountable masses is nothing short of irresponsible.

These companies are effectively throwing their hands in the air, giving up. This sort of irresponsibility is founded in the same flawed ideal as design–by–contest logic. It is believed that the sheer volume of “ideas” generated by the mob will mitigate any issues of overall quality or appropriateness. This is never true. These businesses seek to get something valuable for nothing. This is not possible.

Subjectivity

Subjectivity is the foundation upon which healthy, moral, functional societies are built. Subjectivity forms concentric rings of inherent responsibility around us, from the bottom–up: self, family, community, society, culture, species, environment, God. The relative importance of this subjectivity, of course, flows from the top–down (reverse of the previous sequence). These rings of subjectivity allow societies to function. Without subjectivity, society dies.

One of the grave flaws of the growing social media and its foundational ideals is that it facilitates irresponsibility and it fuels and rewards our basest motivations. In the resulting environment we are allowed to completely disregard our subjectivity to one another. Courtesy, respect, good manners, and a sense of our relationship with society die on the altar of the misnamed social media. So a more apt term for this mechanism would seem to be “anti–social media.”

Community and Discussion

Communities now drive new media. But these so–called communities are unlike any I ever knew growing up. Discussions, too, drive the new media. But these discussions are unlike any I’ve known, outside of an elementary school argument.

In practice, however, what happens is that our penchant for fetish drives the process. Truly important news, truly excellent writing, truly vital ideas are largely ignored and sent below in favor of sensationalism, titillation, and those things that generate the most outrage and argument (some mistakenly call this discussion).

The social aspects of social media are often as anti–social as it gets. In our online community discussions, we say things we’d never say to another face–to–face and we behave in a manner that would likely otherwise get us punched in the face. And rightly so. We’ve grown comfortable with the idea of dispensing with our subjectivity to one another. This is a very bad idea.

Much of the social media has become a venue for us to practice our most anti–social behavior and exercise our basest motivations. And we’re rewarded for this activity by the fact that others delight in engaging us at a similar level, fueling the engine. And this activity is supposed to be the new and valuable community mechanism to lead us into the more enlightened future? I don’t think so.

The Important News

One of the popular mechanisms for new media is news that is driven by popularity. Vote on the news that you deem important, so other news rightly (it is believed) filters to the bottom and to obscurity. This would seem to be an effective way to ensure that important news gains readership, while not–so–important news gets out of the way.

In practice, however, what happens is that our penchant for fetish drives the process. Truly important news, truly excellent writing, truly vital ideas are largely ignored and sent below in favor of sensationalism, titillation, and those things that generate the most outrage and argument (some mistakenly call this discussion).

In the social media, news is not enough. News must be supported by popular participation; else it is often equated to a worthless monologue. Unbelievable. Television news, too, has fully adopted sensationalism over substance. The news is now dumbed down and presented in the most sensational manner so that more viewers are willing to watch. Viewership is more important than valuable information. So today, most news – on any television station you can find – is increasingly mediocre and decadent. And increasingly worthless.

New Culture

Mediocrity and decadence: these are now our birthright and we work feverishly to ensure that they’re the primary features of our social endeavors. This sort of thing has happened before. History is filled with stories of how societies, great and small, have followed this path. We can read about their beginnings and their inevitable endings, in books – and now in the so–very–accurate and august Wikipedia (monument to the wisdom of crowds — /sarcasm).

The waxing relevant engines of our culture are teaching us to follow a pat, clichéd script that has played out over and over again for millennia. Western culture is on the downhill slope and gathering speed toward the brick wall at the bottom. I’m talking about the hill where, at the bottom, lie the heaps of rubble that history refers to: great cultures all. Welcome to culture 2.0.

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