In 2011, the cultural critic Emily Nussbaum reflected on the flowering of online feminism through new publications, social media conversations, and digital organizing. But Nussbaum worried, even if you can expand the supply of who’s writing, will that actually change the influence of women’s voices in society? What if online feminism was just an echo chamber?
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A couple of major platforms like Facebook and Twitter, YouTube, have become in many places around the world a de facto public sphere. Especially in countries that have less than free Internet, less than free mass media. And these countries have transitioned from a very controlled public sphere to a commercially-run one like Facebook.
I’m going to argue today that even while we know post-truth politics is having a terrible effect on our political culture and our role as citizens, it’s curiously difficult to combat it because of a set of beliefs about what politics is, and about the Internet and the way it enables ordinary people to have a voice. And these beliefs intersect with a prevailing anti-intellectual anti-elitism which associates knowledge, discernment, and truth with snobbery and power.
We’ve already been through several situations where new technologies come along. The Industrial Revolution removed a large number of jobs that had been done by hand, replaced them with machines. But the machines had to be built, the machines had to be operated, the machines had to be maintained. And the same is true in this online environment.
I think there’s an unprecedented opportunity to change our relationship with political power. And I don’t think we need to be afraid of it. I don’t think we have to compromise our core principles in order to do it.
When I asked my peers and my professors if they’d ever heard of this type of work, two things happened. The first thing is that they said no, they hadn’t. The second thing they said, which is probably what you’re thinking, is, “Well, can’t computers do that?” And in fact the answer to that is no.
We’ve got two paradoxical trends happening at the same time. The first is what I call in my book “the cult of the social,” the idea that on the network, everything has to be social and that the more you reveal about yourself the better off you are. So if your friends could know what your musical taste is, where you live, what you’re wearing, what you’re thinking, that’s a good thing, this cult of sharing. So that’s one thing that’s going on. And the other thing is an increasingly radicalized individualism of contemporary, particularly digital, life. And these things seem to sort of coexist, which is paradoxical and it’s something that I try to make sense of in my book.
One of the things that was happening at the time is that one of the accusations that was being made, or that was being proffered by people who made sort of snap, knee-jerk responses to what was going on is that social media is being blamed. Social media was blamed for the worst civil unrest that England had seen in recent years.
I think that we need a radical design change. And I might ask if I were teaching an HCI class or design class with you, I would say, “How are you going to design this so that not one life is lost?” What if that were the design imperative rather than what’s your IPO going to be?
Social media companies have an unparalleled amount of influence over our modern communications. […] These companies also play a huge role in shaping our global outlook on morality and what constitutes it. So the ways in which we perceive different imagery, different speech, is being increasingly defined by the regulations that these platforms put upon us [in] our daily activities on them.
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