“Pixelated Peasants”: An Interview with Jonathan Salem Baskin

If you think social media is a 21st century phenomenon, think again. Jonathan Salem Baskin says today’s social media “is only a blip in a long continuum of social activity.”

Paul M. Davis

Jonathan Salem Baskin’s provocative book Histories of Social Media challenges the notion that social media is an unprecedented phenomenon, examining historical precursors to the social networks of today, from the Bayeux Tapestry, a Medieval “Face Book”, to crowdsourced treatments to the Black Death. An author and brand strategist, Baskin argues that social media is “only a blip in the long continuum of social activity”. Baskin spoke to me about mob rule, “pixelated peasants”, what entrepreneurs and activists can learn from religious organizations, and much more.

"Pixelated Peasants"

What do we risk by thinking of social media as an unprecedented phenomenon ?

Histories of Social MediaTwo risks: we waste too much time repeating the mistakes of the past, and we miss the real opportunities for the future. The presumption that our experience is new is a very old idea. It’s why everything from fashion to economics is cyclical, just as every generation seems surprised when their revolutions fail, inventions disappoint, and they disappoint one another. Human behavior stays constant across time. Our experience of social media is no exception: the notion that they are “new” means that we waste much of their use rediscovering the experiences that our predecessors found through prior technologies. While we’re busy recreating the past, the “old” future opportunities (and challenges) await our attention, just as they have every generation.

Observing that conversations are generally dominated by the few, you write that “social experiences are inherently undemocratic”. This runs counter to much of the popular thinking about social media. How would you respond to arguments that social media has built-in norms and correctives to mob rule that ensure a diversity of opinions?

I’d say that two thousand years of history prove they’re wrong. There’s nothing inherently democratic about any social media, whether coffee houses, printing presses, or blogger platforms. Structures emerge from use, not design, and they trend toward the undemocratic, whether percolating up from social interactions (through participant acclamation or presumptions of authority), or devolving to lowest-common denominator conclusions and actions. Customers who tweet their complaints are more equal than others, just as the most-viewed video on YouTube represents the least meaningful, mostly inconsequential and unconscious thing on which a groups can agree. Providing the capacity to speak is not the same thing as guaranteeing that everyone will be heard, or that anyone is particularly listening. Today’s social media are no exception.

You argue that communities have traditionally served to keep others out. Media pundits and theorists have observed the same trends in how we consume news and opinion online–the echo chamber effect in which news and information becomes more audience-specific and marginalized. What is the historical response to these sorts of exclusionary impulses?

Kill the people who don’t agree with you. War is the natural outcome of mutually exclusive world views. Even though today we have access to greater amounts of information, we believe less of it, and we hold onto our beliefs evermore firmly. This is not a modern condition, but rather the way people have lived for most of history. The only corrective I can see is mandatory education; in the past, societies have had to forcibly insist that children be taught the same facts and share the same formative educational experiences. This approach is imperfect and fraught with biases, but without a guarantee that people share some common ground there’s really no way for them to every fully reconcile points of view that emerge from different perspectives. They may tolerate one another, for a time, but they’ll never agree, insomuch that they can never agree on what “agree” means. Armed conflict is an easier conversation.

Using dueling or battles as the primary metaphors for online discussion, you note that social conventions conform to the limitations of the given technology, and suggest that what we consider to be “conversations” online are too disengaged to fit the definition. Is real, engaged conversation even possible online, in your opinion?

Technology and the reality of conversation are limiting factors, for sure, but they also enable experiences. The medium might not be the entire message but it informs the content by format and mechanism of exchange. Today, short and fast are not only not synonyms for meaningful and lasting, but they tend to make us believe that frequent is a substitute for both qualities. There’s no evidence that this is true anywhere else in history (in fact, it was usually assumed that folks who shared too briefly and often had nothing to say). Yet we’ve all had wonderfully meaningful conversations on email, a blog, or in a chat room. My bet is that the “truth” of these exchanges had more to do with how they resembled conversations in the real world — pacing, participation, and purpose — than with any newfangled technology concept of what online dialog should be.

Engagement has traditionally been engendered through geographic or fraternal experiences, you write. As such, simply “sharing” something on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t qualify. Would you say the same for more complex forms of online engagement, such as essays and cross-blog discussions, that are based upon political, cultural or even geographic affinities? Do these constitute a more engaged form of interaction or is this not possible online?

We have a real problem with our use of words when it comes to social media. “Engagement” has always required need, purpose, and behavioral outcomes to qualify as a quality beyond “entertainment” or “distraction,” yet most often we use the term to describe the silliest and inconsequential online experiences. I think that meaningful engagement occurs — there are great uses of it, like the Red Cross using Twitter to find disaster victims, lovebirds finding and marrying one another on dating sites, and academicians talking on the W.E.L.L. decades ago — but I don’t think we’ve yet cracked the code on how to put online tools to such uses consistently. One of the key qualities that differentiates purpose from pointlessness is a real-world component (like Meetup.org). It doesn’t help that most businesses still use social experience to waste consumers’ time (and call it engagement).

One of the historical examples of engaged social action that you cite are trade unions. In contrast, you characterize social media users as “pixelated peasants,” amusing themselves to distraction via an endless circle of consumption. Academics, companies and charitable entities have used social platforms to create value rather than merely consume. How can social media be better harnessed to produce social benefits? Is this possible with commercial social media platforms, that have a built-in bias to encourage consumption rather than production?

There’s nothing built-in to make social media irrelevant other than its ease of application to irrelevant purposes; I think the bias to consumption that we see in social media is due to the predilections of marketers, and because they’ve adopted it as the replacement for their traditional channels for distributing creative content. Marketers are in the “invent wants” business, while communities have historically been in the “addressing needs” business. My gut tells me that the social benefits of social media emerge when individuals and groups use it to engage in the same information-sharing and activism that matters in the real-world, only perhaps applied to broader demographics or geographies, and perhaps accomplished more efficiently. I think most of the supposedly new uses for it are just reiterations of old ways to waste money and time.

There’s a common stereotype that ’50s American culture was isolating, with people living in their cordoned-off suburban homes and having little civic life. In your book, you refute this conception. What are we missing about the social lives of people in the ’50s, and what elements from this period have we lost?

All media are conversational, and a medium of conversation can be far more than a channel that contains creative content. The 1950s were rich in a variety of networks that linked people and allowed them to share their ideas: they commuted to work and interacted there, and their technology required faces or voices to operate; civic groups, religious institutions, and schools brought them together on topics and issues, and the armed services gave them common hardships; individuals participated in group buying events (such as Tupperware parties) and evidenced many of the qualities we now call WOM; adult education and personal improvement drove many to evening classes and the Great Books Program; and people didn’t just sit in front of TVs and obey the commands of commercials (which didn’t come to exist until late in the decade) but rather consumed their media in social settings, and then discussed it just as vociferously as we do ours. Internet behavior is a poor substitute for the multiple and varied social interactions that people had with one another 50+ years ago.

Speaking of the differences between libraries and online media, you write, “Popularity isn’t an organizational system, it’s a marketing tool, yet this is how the internet organizes and prioritizes information.” If such measures of a piece of information’s value are inherently flawed, how do we otherwise organize the endless torrent of information online? Are there alternative ways to rank this information, or are automated algorithms like Google’s PageRank flawed and biased by design?

Mathematician John Allen Paulos once likened the Internet to the world’s largest library, with the caveat that all of the books were strewn on the floor. Sorting them by popularity — which can often mean nothing more than somebody tripped over one book instead of another — is no measure of their content or value, is it? Further, trolling pages for the “right” words isn’t the same thing as valuing how they’ve been sown together into the sentences and paragraphs required for meaning. We’ve allowed the Dewey Decimal System to be replaced by a popularity contest run by people who want to sell things to us. Of course, there have always been biases and structural impediments built into the processes through which books are created (not every writer or individual with an insight arguably worth writing about got into that file cabinet full of cards), but I’d argue that it was still less manipulative than what we’ve got now. How do we otherwise organize the torrent of info available online? We don’t, at least not objectively. We build our own subjective filters; the online library becomes a million different and often incompatible collections of content. I do think there’s an opportunity for publishers to declare and then substantiate their objectivity (The Economist comes to mind, which seems to be thriving as an online resource).

You explain that brands and affinity groups that operate online can learn much from religious organizations. What are some of the time-honored methods that religions have utilized to build strong ties?

I think there are three qualities that make religious truth more meaningful than anything that governments or businesses have ever delivered: first, it’s personal. No religion is about an ‘out there’ as much as an ‘in here,’ much like the engagement offered by trade unions, only on steroids; second, it’s incomplete. No religion delivers an answer on even the most ultimate of questions that doesn’t require the believer to complete or implement it; third, be persecuted. There’s a reason why every religion has believed itself to be under attack, even when it was doing the attacking. Adversity affirms community. These are truths that go far beyond any communications medium and get at what content is important to communicate.

What’s your take on social media’s role in populist movements in places like Egypt and Iran? These are cases in which social media has been used to organize real-life movements. Do you see these as examples of social media engendering real-world engagement, or merely the communication tool of the time?

I don’t think social media have anything to do with populist protests, or at least no more than any other media. The world saw revolutions long before the discovery of electricity, and while social media might make communicating faster and easier, it doesn’t change the fundamental mechanisms of group dynamics or action. I think to characterize it otherwise does a disservice to the hard work and risk people undertake in those circumstances, just as it overstates the importance of armchair-compliant technologies. The Iranian Twitter Revolution was the 21st century corollary of a TV show; most of its friends watched it, and pretended that viewership was the same as participation. That’s the opposite of real-world engagement. I don’t imagine what’s going in Egypt was or is any more dependent on social technology. It relies on people and their behavior, and those qualities are timeless.

Read an excerpt from Histories of Social Media.

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About the Author

paul m. davisPaul M. Davis is the Science, Tech and Civicsystems editor for Shareable, and an Austin-based writer fascinated with the new independent media, online publishing, green tech, government 2.0, and guerrilla art. His work has appeared in the SF Weekly, Utne Reader‘s Alt Wire, the AV Club, Punk Planet, the Santa Cruz Weekly, Metro Silicon Valley and DEMO Magazine. He is also the editor for Is Greater Than, a literary-minded culture blog. Articles, essays, music and fiction can be found at www.paulmdavis.com.


Article and photos reprinted with permission from www.shareable.net, previously published on February 2, 2011. cc-badge


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