Like everyone else in the UK I would imagine, I have been thinking hard about the ongoing News International situation and its ramifications. What with the relationship between politicians, the media and society at large firmly in the spotlight and with personal stories intermingling with demographic shifts, there’s a lot to get one’s head around. Some of it is undoubtedly good, not least the unearthing of illegality wherever it should be buried. Also laid bare has been the inappropriate influence of a few powerful people on successive governments. We can only hope that the institutional cowardice of the past can be replaced by a bit more gumption on the part of our elected representatives.
I confess also to having felt a certain unease in just how simple it can be to broadcast views, however. This discomfort is entirely hypocritical: when the subject of Britain’s forests came up for example, I was one of the many who was able to express my deep concern through sites such as 38 Degrees by the mere click of a button. Campaign sites have become like a giant remote: couch potatoes can collectively email their MP’s with the same ease as changing TV channels or voting for their favorite pop star. Twitter is even simpler: my suggestion (one of many) to boycott the paper required 140 characters and a carriage return.
While those in office may feel a bit miffed at the volume of messages they are starting to receive, both sides (and indeed, those who make it possible) are missing the point to see such communications as a bigger version of what has gone before. We can use terms like “campaign” or “petition” and see the quantity of collected identities (no signature required) as in some way comparable to a quantity gathered by letter writing, complaint calls or people in the street. The results are not comparable however: of course you’ll get a bigger response, if you make the mechanisms easier.
In other words, however excited some may get about how they are changing democracy through the provision of yet another campaign site, they are not. Something bigger is afoot, which may be seen as the conglomeration of all such sites, together with social sites such as Facebook, and the offline interactions that they reflect.
This last piece is important. How easy it is to think that #NOTW was brought down by Twitter, for example, ignoring the fact that just as much conversation was taking place verbally and influenced through the gestures of individuals, both personally and professionally (think: stock prices). A million, ten million, a billion tiny gestures, some counteracting, others reinforcing, all add to the whole, just as they always have.
What’s different is that we now have a series of mechanisms to capture such moments. Each offers a fragment of opinion, partially thought out based on an incomplete understanding of the facts. Less the wisdom of the crowds, then, and more the sentiment of the crowds, which needs to be viewed as a whole as much as individual voices, if not more.
While this may be an obvious conclusion, it’s not currently the case. MPs write boiler-plated letters back to couch-based constituents, the cost of vellum, stamp and postal miles draining resources and missing the point. Meanwhile, social media sentiment analysis is a new field which will no doubt become an end in itself, also completely missing the point that it is measuring another set of measures, themselves based on incomplete modelling of what’s happening “out there”.
The question remains about whether, as Heisenberg might have predicted, the use of social tools or the act of measurement will change the behaviours they support. While this is perhaps inevitable in the short term, it is no recent phenomenon – uprisings such as those in Egypt will make use of the tools of the day, just as did pamphleteers like Thomas Paine in 1776, nigh on 200 years before the Internet existed. (Indeed, it would be an interesting study to see whether a correlation exists between generations of communication tools – printing, telephony, TV etc – and mass behaviour).
However, it’s important not to judge the tools available today with older models – comparing response numbers like-for-like, for example. It is a moot question whether or not the underlying nature of democracy is changing. Rather, given that messages can be passed faster than they were in the past, government needs very quickly to move to a position where it can respond in a reasoned fashion to genuine sentiment, instead of becoming no more than a series of knee-jerk reactions to inadequately expressed opinions.