Say Everything is one of my favourite books. Not just because it covers the history of blogging, which is at the core of my doctoral research – but also because it encapsulates the empowerment we associate with the read/write web: freedom from intermediaries, access to the modern equivalent of a private printing press, the right to raise our voice above mediated and official channels. I wrote a review of the book for a journal and continue to find new nuggets of pleasure within my mangled copy of Rosenberg’s opus.
Being able to say everything means that meaningful discourse has to compete for our attention with whatever else comes out of people’s keyboards, mobiles, iPads and other devices. Tumblr is a great example of the coexistence of say, politics and activism with trivia and banality. The social web simply reflects and magnifies what goes on in our private lives – with the significant difference that we don’t know who is listening, or indeed how our private data is being used by the owners of the social platforms that we choose to use for our daily fix of interaction or personal broadcast. That is the bargain we are currently in, for using a set of tools for free: we don’t quite know (and perhaps don’t quite care) how user-generated content is being monetised by the companies that own the networks we trust.
The disconnect between our expectations of the social web, and what it appears to deliver, is increasingly a topic of interest for marketers, academics and parents. I summarised some of these disconnects in a TEDx talk and how an awareness of the need for digital literacies may be one way of narrowing the gulf that currently exists in how to navigate social media, and particularly in corporates and classrooms. Howard Rheingold’s new book Net Smart will, no doubt, enable us to peep round the corners.
In the meantime, being able to say everything online will continue to disrupt our view of how traditional power systems are supposed to operate. CEOs commission social media strategies while monitoring staff ‘wasting time’ on social media; parents look for clues on what their children think about them from their Facebook pages; teachers are met by shields of laptops and laconic fiddling with mobile devices ; 12 year-olds build apps for the iPhone; Marxists lock horns with Internet utopians on the basic notions of what really constitutes democracy and online participation; and aspiring politicians continue to mistake the medium for the old broadcast and get regularly lampooned by people who until recently would have feared retribution.
Never as much as today is McLuhan relevant. Or Postman, for the matter. Business, political and education models are being disrupted as more people and more social systems come on stream. And of course, it’s not all good – in fact, the social landscape is plain messy and difficult to navigate and has been like that for a while. There are serious concerns about the potential for citizen surveillance and many are tempted to disconnect altogether. In 2008, the academic Terri Senft, in her book ‘CamGirls’ wrote:
Offline, we are protected from ourselves by the passage of time. Even when others recall our most embarrassing moments, they are filtered through the gauze of memory. Online, the words and images with which we associate ourselves persist indefinitely, retaining their exact original form long after the context of their creation has been lost and the self who created them has been discarded. Most of us who started online in the 1980’s or 1990’s can readily summon up a list of cringe-worthy documents of our past selves, long deleted but still locatable through search engines like the Wayback Machine (Senft, 2008. Pg.8).
We appear to be stuck in the transit lounge – from saying everything and possibly amusing ourselves to death to figuring out how we can say something at the right time, on the right platform, to the right people and make our discourse and actions meaningful. And yet, there’s never been as interesting a time as now to observe the fissures being created, by often accidental discourse on social media, to the foundations of power systems that until recently we would never have questioned or dare challenge.