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How do we make meaning of any of this?
When I think about social media, I don’t immediately feel a sense of connectedness. First and foremost, I feel overwhelmed. Following that, I feel somewhat distrusting. It all represents such a vast amount of information, coming from an impossible number of sources. The fact that the majority of this extra information is non-critical is what’s largely upsetting. You can choose, and are encouraged to choose, to be barraged with a ceaseless flow of “updates”, add-ons, comments, links, images, videos, you name it… all referring to something, but you can never really be certain of the information’s true point of origin. It’s damn scary.
Normal use of the internet nowadays involves this often involuntary wading process; wading through all of the extraneous chatter; wading through all of the questions, the comments, the edits and the opinions that led to any given piece of information’s availability, 24/7, anywhere in the world; wading through the biases, the filtration and the mistranslation of facts. The digital information sphere that we live in is so niche-ified and fragmented that it has become fairly useless for discovering any real, tangible information. Backing up and considering the fact that language itself is an imperfect system for conveying ideas and experiences, there may not even be such a thing as absolute information in journalism, but if there is, the internet is not the place to find it. The sources are far too numerous, and the information exchanged there is itself far too self-referential to ever be succinct or have a basic meaning. Everything is aggregate, and by consequence, inexact.
The presentation of information on the web is now just an instantaneously updated pot where we dump a few items, which may or may not be factual, and top them with a slew of comments and opinions…none of which should change the facts themselves, but somehow manage to. The substance, or “nutritional value” of the information we send and receive on a daily basis is close to 0. Commentary has become the new fact. New social media startups like Storify are a prime example. These “stories” that people are now consuming, are not comprised of any factual information, but rather snippets, loosely related interpretations, and fringe observations. It’s like writing a news story, but without the actual what, where or why, and the ‘Who’ is no longer the original persons involved…it’s everyone else and their mother. Regardless of when the original happening happened, the ‘When’ is always now, now, now, now, now. It’s constantly now. The news is created every time anyone anywhere has a thought and thinks to share it online. We’re creating stories out of the chatter left in the wake of the original information. And we will create stories from those created stories, and so on, and so forth.
We jump on the train of producing information for the sake of having produced it, and for the sake of having gotten there ‘first’. We don’t truly value information anymore. We just value our ability to distribute, dissect and dissolve it into nothingness en masse…into Tweets, into statuses and ‘likes’, into replies and mentions, into hashtags, into reblogs and reblogs of those original reblogs, into edits, diggs and reddits…into meaningless branches of social media, supposedly to be determined by how YOU wish to interact with the original source information… which is, to never really interact with it at all.
The distortion of information in journalism is nothing new, but the web has just taken it to a whole new level. Anyone with an opinion can embed that opinion into information as it passes by with the click of a mouse. As it filters through each social platform, it shapeshifts over time, and may become completely unrecognizable by the time it reaches its final resting place. I could literally read an article, hypothesize something (anything) about that article, republish it, and force-feed it to my friends via social media, and we’d call that creativity! We might even call it critical thinking. In fact, this weirdness might even be happening right now as you’re reading this (although I don’t actively advertise this blog, it can still be accessed via search engines, etc.). As far as internet use goes, I don’t think that I or anyone that I know has ever interacted with real information.
This is all so much that it makes me want to vomit. It’s trash. It’s information detritus. It’s excess and nonsense, but it’s very strategically targeted excess and nonsense, which makes it all the more sinister. If the information you’re consuming isn’t referencing itself into meaningless oblivion, it’s referencing you first (unbeknownst to you) before determining which parts of itself to reference back to you. Thanks to social media, open-source encyclopedias and big corporate advertisers, the internet is not a place to find clean information, but rather a place to observe individualized bubbles of recycled, pre-filtered metadata. And if it’s not companies or other individuals superficially filtering it for you, it’s you who is filtering it (via privacy settings, blocking capabilities, etc.).
When your information sources are practically infinite, and you have too little or too much control over the flow of the chatter, you can never acquire complete information. Ever. You will always be missing a piece of the puzzle, a piece of the understanding. We all know so much about everything and everyone thanks to social media, but at the same time we all know essentially nothing about anything, thanks to social media. Such diverse and endless information can’t possibly have absolute meaning to any one individual at any given point in time.
Were he around for this today, Marshall McLuhan might say that all of these social media extensions and iterations of information are normal, necessary progress. He might simply call them social adaptations brought about by the initial pressures of the information age. Just like evolutionary changes take place to prepare us for the potential biological impact of a consistent new environment, technological changes take place to help prepare us for the future mental and social stress of even greater technological intervention. The acceleration of technological intervention in our lives is at the heart of the singularity, and the fact that you could feel overwhelmed by the increasing diversity of social media outlets and information aggregates is proof that we are headed toward desensitization to extreme amounts of information overload. As much as I hate to admit it, our adaptation to this daily onslaught precipitates and is probably necessary for the eventual software/wetware merger, the bio-integration of nanotechnologies.
Social media has allowed for the personal filtering of whole information. It has allowed for bits of whole information to be exponentially referenced and duplicated by millions of users. Eventually, the amount of stories and the variations of each story will increase to a crescendo, and the flow will no longer be blockable by simply choosing not to engage in a certain social media platform. The ongoing production and flow of information will be invited into each and every one of us through the use of nanotechnology. One day, breaking news will induce grand mal seizures in all of us.
McLuhan is also noted for saying that “the medium is the message,” the message of course still being important, but the media used to convey it taking on an overarching importance. The medium transfers certain additional characteristics to the message, and says a lot about the people both sending and receiving the message. The variety of social media outlets with only minute differences between their aim and execution proves the fact that we’re much more concerned with comparing our individual, fragmented perspectives on information, than protecting the integrity of the original information itself. In addition to that, we weigh out the perspectives based on who produced them, and via which media they were produced. The aggregate info has become the new single commodity — the new information nugget, and maybe that’s ultimately correct. From a broader statistical standpoint, maybe this combination of all of the aforementioned information crap should be considered “whole” and “true” — afterall, any consumable information is only as valuable as our ability to understand it, and at the end of the day, that responsibility ultimately boils down to the individual. That single idea must be at the heart of all social media. It is our collective effort to better understand and make use of the constant stream of information crap that’s coming at us from all directions.
But still… I suspect that our execution is wrong, because it’s just too fucking overwhelming to actually work.