Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Online social networking and its impact on social discourse and democratic processes

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on February 3, 2010

When I wrote and posted Social Networking and Community, and the Emergence of Fads, I did so with a focus on fads, and with an awareness that fads have come and gone for a long, long time, dating to well before the Internet or any electronic means of communication were in place – early telegraph included. So the questions and issues I touched on in that posting did not in any way presume that our current and developing communications and information sharing capabilities were creating something new here per se. I was thinking of other issues.

1. Do our current communication and information sharing capacities increase the frequency of fads occurring?
2. How does this new and still emerging capability affect the life cycle and durability of fads?

A third question has to be added there, of course.

3. Does this capability make it easier to shape and even in a sense control public opinion to among other things create intentional fads?

And as a troubling addition to that list I add yet one more question to the mix.

4. How does this apply beyond the scope of fads per se, to include political discourse and other important public policy matters, and to the extent it does what does this do to the democratic process? Think Propaganda 2.0 there as a dystopian possibility.

In my earlier posting I picked up on a fad-oriented working example, that at least from my perspective is not going to be a make or break issue for society as a whole – teenage clothing fashion and how that might be shaped. I touched upon some of the issues central to question three in that posting and left it posing the substance of the first two questions as an end thought. I pick this up here with all of these first three questions in mind, but with a focus on the fourth question, as that is where this has the potential for greatest, long term significance.

Right now we are tremendously polarized politically and socially in this country, the United States, though I am not sure how much of that stems from our growing capability to find and network with those of like mind, in building communities of action – where that action may take the form of building momentum and buzz to a fad. I am also not sure how much of this is in fact a matter of building sustaining and sustainable, if sometimes quite extremist voices and choices. And to round out this list I am not sure how much of this would simply be happening anyway, with our without our current anytime and everywhere communications and networking capabilities.

The real issue for me though is one of whether this growing capability is fostering extremism and the marginalizing of the middle, and if it is of what we can and should do to maintain civil discourse and more effective sharing of opinion and consensus building.

I have to make note here in this context that repressive governments see online communications and interactive online as a threat to their stability, and as perhaps the greatest single source of threat to their continued existence. Their examples and their fears in particular would suggest that this is a tremendous positive for the open development and sharing of ideas and that it fosters democracy. At the same time, I see our expanding communications capabilities as option and opportunity for demagoguery and extremism, and for expanding the reach of intolerance and certainly where they can be manipulated. Both of these approaches are at least partly valid and for democratic systems as well as for systems that would deny public choice or decision as repressive regimes. And I find myself siding with the positive value of our rapidly expanding communications and data sharing capabilities in acknowledgment that the open marketplace is messy, but that this is where competition takes place – in that mess. This has to include the marketplace for ideas too, and that is where democracy springs from.

So I look around at the polarization in public discourse and wonder if we are all going through a somewhat messy learning curve as we find out how to more effectively connect and work together, and on the messy, contentious issues. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of this open, boisterous complexity in his Democracy In America and perhaps for all the discord and sometimes discomfort we are facing now, with our extremists and on several sides we are experiencing that again.

One Response

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  1. Lorita said, on February 10, 2010 at 7:49 am

    I just submitted this to digg! I love ittttt

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