The internet is a virtual society made up of myriad communities. As with all human societies it both reflects and influences human behaviour.
Most human societies have some kind of hierarchical structure built into them. The internet has always been seen as a level playing field because anyone who uses it has equal access to the information available on it. The Internet has also always been considered a democratic platform as anyone who has access to it can create content. However, the visibility of content, as with most things, is primarily determined by market forces. A glance at the most popular You Tube videos and Instagram accounts gives a fascinating insight into the most commercial content. Clickbait headlines, titles that visually “pop”, extreme, controversial, sexually explicit and addictive content such as ASMR all feature prominently.
Algorithms log our preferences which deliver more of the same content to our “feeds”. Our preferences are monitored so that almost identical content is marketed to us over and over again. As a result, our exposure to alternate views, perspectives or “realities” declines. “Bubbles” or “pods” form, whereby we overwhelmingly become exposed to a one dimensional understanding of the world. Over time, such feedback loops solidify ideas into ideologies. Ideologies, being the over identification of an individual to an idea or concept. Ideologies are a loss of the real to the abstract.
Our data is harvested, at times, without consent, as the Cambridge Analytica story which broke earlier this year demonstrated. This data is not only used for commercial purposes. As the Cambridge Analytica story illustrated, it is also often sold to third parties such as political groups who use it to create a personalised internet experience to influence user voting practices.
As argued in this video, politics flows downstream from culture. Change the culture and you change the political landscape. Culture wars become political battle grounds and these grounds can be bought for a premium turning the democratic ideal of the internet into a plutocracy.
As more of our personal time is spent in virtual spaces, online society keenly influences how we see the world and relate to others.
Society is scaffolded by systems. These systems impact interpersonal human relations. Individuals grow and develop within the cultural framework of social systems. These systems include family, education, economics, religion and politics. Systems are channels in which individuals can interact with, navigate, influence and be influenced by the external world. Every system contains power dynamics, hierarchies, norms, values and rules to maximise functionality. Some are more open and transparent than others. Some have accountability built into them, other’s don’t. The thing about systems is they are there to serve. Once the system becomes more important than the individuals within it, it must be questioned.
As philosopher Marshall McLuhan argued “the medium is the message”. In terms of the system of the internet there certainly seems to be some truth in this. The medium is changing how we engage socially in both the virtual and the real world. It is even changing the way our brains work. Among other things, studies have shown that internet use shortens mental attention spans and social media negatively impacts the mental health of teens.
Political divisions have become more extreme since the internet. So called “fake news” has sprung up from both left and right leaning sources and conspiracy theories have spread like wild fire, undermining people’s trust in society as a whole. Political pods of all affiliations are popping up like self-sustaining eco systems, akin to any cult, adrift and unanchored to the shore of wider society.
Groups like this divide people into ever smaller cells of belonging. When a group becomes governed by ever more particular and specific axioms members are bound by them on pain of exile and a subtle, insideous conformity emerges.
Dissention within society is healthy. Paradoxically, sub cultures created by healthy forms of dissention often disallow room for dissention within their own ranks. Hierarchies reform once again but the ideological boundaries around them are tighter and contain less diversity. Ironically, the only common denominator obtained is that everyone in the group is equally intellectually and socially oppressed by the very rules originally meant to empower and emancipate. Totalitarianism develops in closed systems. Systems unhinged from the diversity and accountability of broader society become petri dishes for tyranny.
The late, great, British politician Tony Benn said:
“In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”
Leaders within many internet sub-cultures seem to have a cult like unquestioned status. Embodied ideas are building brand loyalty that supersedes human relationships. It is much easier to break connections, troll, un-friend, dislike, thumb down and engage in impulsive debates and arguments with total strangers, friends and family alike through a screen than in real life.
When we all lived in tiny villages surrounded by hill forts and moats, our behaviour became tribal. We were suspicious of foreigners, strangers and threatened by change. In some ways the internet seems to be making people more tribal, closed-minded and suspicious of those outside of their particular group. Is the global village turning into lots of tiny, basement flats, with a similarly restricted view and lack of perspective?
I am always interested by those that seek to bridge gaps and dialogue. Perhaps, the way forward is to intentionally seek out reasonable and sincere voices from all sides. There is a humility and modesty in knowing that we don’t have all the answers, that we are in process ourselves. But to entertain such room for possibility we must step out of the comfort of our internet “bubbles” and change our internal algorithms. They say the internet is like a vast brain, collating and distilling human thought. Our own internet journey’s both in-form and mirror our internal worlds. They matter. They are important. We can be disciplined in our internet use, seek out beauty, hope, poetry and kindness.
Indeed, in terms of the internet, there may be truth in the idea that we create our reality. Regardless of how much we end up learning and growing, our feed will surely be more interesting. In this new world of extremes, the moderates may become the new rebels!
We can’t seek to broaden other’s understanding of our own experiences and values if we don’t broaden our own. Then there are the shared experiences inherent to all human beings, such as grief, loss, hope and joy. These shared experiences are bridges not walls. They create infrastructure that liberates thought rather than shackling it.
In a climate of social, cultural and political diversity social consensus can’t always be the goal but perhaps, more than ever, social cohesion should be.