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Social media: Wisdom of crowd or mob mentality?

Back in the 1990s, new media and technologies promised an amazing future and everything about it seemed unambiguously positive.

Books such as MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital (1995) and Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead (1996), magazines such as Wired, along with Al Gore’s proclamations on the information superhighway reflected the unbridled optimism of the decade.

New media and technologies promised an amazing future, where “we are bound to find new hope and dignity in places where very little existed before” as Negroponte put it.

The dot com bubble of 2001 put a temporary stop to this kind of utopianism, but the rise of social media infused this rhetoric with a new life.

Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter signalled the era of social media, where ‘you’ and ‘I’, the collective ‘us’, are the main protagonists at the centre of the social media universe.

Time magazine made this very clear when electing ‘You’ as person of the year 2006: the technological utopianism of the early internet was now replaced with an equally unrestrained celebration of social media individualism.

The uprising collectively known as the Arab spring added a political spin, infusing social media with a politics (liberal and democratic) and a morality (open and shared).

Today, this rhetoric can only appear as ironic as the wisdom of the crowd has turned into a mob mentality.

Sharing and exchanging is still here, but now it’s random insults, offensive comments in capitalised letters, and incomprehensible abbreviations.

The slut shaming and misogynistic turn of the internet was a shock to many who expected that social media would unleash human potential and creativity.

No serious newspaper or online news site dares to risk allowing un-moderated comments, for reasons unfortunately known to all.

Bizarre campaigns and hoaxes such as the infamous neknominations and the ‘bikini bridge’ could be seen as creative, but is this the kind of creativity that Negroponte and others had in mind?

It is perhaps in the political and moral sphere that reality has turned to bite social media. The democratic promise of the Arab spring seems to be lost forever when you see jihadis tweeting selfies with beheaded bodies, or posting videos of executions on YouTube.

The continuous surveillance by secret service and corporate agents adds another sinister dimension, removing even the illusion of privacy that password protected accounts and online anonymity afforded. When we share pictures such as the two girls hanging from a tree in India, even if we only wish to denounce such violence, the open and collaborative logic of social media turns into sensationalism and gruesomeness.

The collective shaming of others, such as the Slane girl, the witch hunt against an innocent man on Reddit in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, the many instances of cyberbullying, online vigilanteism, and other similar online events, point to a very dubious morality in social media.

All these should not be taken to mean that we must somehow turn back to some non-existent golden past before social media

After all, we have unprecedented access to information, open-source and peer-to-peer based innovation has led to new ways of collaboration and co-production, while the new digital public spheres have contributed to the creation of a new commons.

Social media are not responsible for jihadism or mob mentality.

Equally, and contra technological utopianism, social media are not the key to social progress and future happiness.

But social media does have certain capacities which are affected by and can affect society, as well as politics and morality. With this in mind, we could move into a second, more mature, social media era, which can acknowledge the ambiguities of social media, and where we can collectively reflect on our online practices.

If the society we wish for is a democratic and open one, then perhaps we should seek to align our online behaviour and expectations we have of one another, of the corporate entities that make up social media, of our political and public actions with the kind of society we aspire to have.

Eugenia Siapera is a lecturer and chair of DCU's MA in social media studies.

18th June, 2014