9 August, 2015
Blaugust, day 9
Entering the second full week of Blaugust, I’m going to switch topics for this week. I specifically want to look at social media. One reason I wasn’t posting on my blog so often is that I wanted to dive more into social media. But, that experience has left me with more problems than solutions.
The greatest communication medium
When I was in university, about 2 decades ago, I stumbled upon this thing called the Internet. It was a little more primitive than what we recognize as the Web these days, but the core was still there. The internet allowed a kid from a poor family who had rarely traveled far from home to talk to people from all over the world. I still remember the amazement I felt when someone on a text MUD I was playing explained some bit of slang from England he was using.
That amazement hooked me into the medium. I was an avid MUD player, I started participating in Usenet forums (mostly talking about MUDs), and saw online games as something amazing. When assigned to write an essay about a South American country in one of my Spanish classes, I was reporting on information that happened that last week as reported on a news site instead of translating dry facts out of an encyclopedia; I was writing about Chilean copper miner strikes instead of about Chilean copper mines.
When the web came around, I learned HTML early on and constructed your typical ugly home page for the time. Instead of just text, we were able to share images from around the world. I wrote pages about my D&D campaign. I wrote pages about the text MUD I wanted to create with some friends. I had a giant page of links that I used as bookmarks.
This interest in the online world and online games landed me my first game job. I joined a landmark mailing list where I talked about online game issues with some of the biggest names in MUD and MMORPG development. I made friends around the world that I never, ever would have met otherwise.
It’s can be hard to understand just how revolutionary the internet is because we’ve had it for a while, but I remember those early days distinctly.
Not the perfect medium
Yet, the pre-web Internet was not exactly perfect. One big problem was it’s exclusionary nature. Home connections were expensive, so you either had to be very well off, have a connection provided by work, be attending university, or know someone who fell into one of these categories. This meant that most people online almost certainly (being) college educated and/or financially well-off. Because computers were very much a male-dominated field at the time, most people online were male, but there were a few women. But, it’s pretty safe to say there wasn’t a huge diversity of people online at the time. Poor people who weren’t going to university on a scholarship were almost certainly not participating online.
The relatively homogenous culture meant that there were a lot of assumed norms. I wrote on Google+ about my theory of “bombastic hyperbole” that causes a lot of confusion for outsiders. (The summary is that a geeky love of Monty Python type absurdity along with the difficulty in determining emotional cues in pure text lead to a community where “die in a fire” was seen as the equivalent of “I strongly disagree with you” rather than an actual wish of physical harm.) As the community got more diverse, a lot of the old assumptions and standards fell by the wayside. This was called the Eternal September by those who experienced it, referring to September when incoming college freshmen would be indoctrinated into the existing culture of the Internet; but in 1993, too many people flooded int communities to be fully brought into the fold.
The rise of social media
Most people took to the internet used it socially. There were discussion groups in the earliest online services such as GEnie and AOL. The “Socializer” is one of the main motivations in Bartle’s four types. Even in non-MMO games, people set up web pages, mailing lists, and forums to build “clans” in games that had absolutely no support for such structures. In MMOs, we considered social activity one of the pillars of the game, the thing that kept people coming back for more even when they had likely exhausted all the novel gameplay options.
Then along came large companies looking to profit from these social connections. These days we have the multi-billion dollar company Facebook that contains a lot of our social interaction. Twitter brought about super-short messages we can blast out to the public. Instagram lets us share our photos in one place, organizing them all and letting others find new photos. Almost any major company that serves the public has some sort of “social media strategy”, and many brands willingly put some social network’s name before their own when giving people internet links.
But, what has this meant for individuals?
This might get ugly
I’m going to be wandering near some controversial topics this week that touch upon social media. These controversial topics are a large part of why I think social media is not living up to its potential, and why I have become hesitant to fully engage with them.
As I plan to discuss in a few of the posts this week, the nature of social media is that it polarizes people. Often if someone doesn’t appear to directly support a position, some assume they must support the opposite and are therefore the Great Satan. Nuanced views are often looked at with suspicion. This causes a lot of frustration, as it closes off useful discussion.
Warning for this week: I am not afraid to moderate people who are disruptive to what I view as useful discussion. The goal isn’t to establish who is right or wrong in various controversial issues, but to look at how social media influenced the discussion. Blind boosterism for any particular viewpoint is a great way to make me cranky and get your comment deleted. This will serve as your one and only warning.
I hope this week is interesting and useful. We shall see.