In 1998, academic James Dewar made a distinction. There are some technological developments whose intended consequences outweigh their unintended ones, and vice versa.
The advent of the cellphone allowed for faster and more convenient communication. It also had an annoying impact on forest rangers, as hikers began to overwhelm them with phone calls asking for directions. That was a nuisance. So, in the early days of mobiles, was having to listen to our neighbour on the train or bus ring to say nothing more than they were on the way home. But ultimately these didn’t outweigh the positives behind developing the cellphone in the first place.
In the second category, the unintended or unexpected consequences of a technological development did outweigh its intended purpose. The invention of the printing press in the 1440s was supposed to aid mass communication. It also catalysed the Protestant Reformation, heralded “the shift from an Earth-centred to a sun-centred universe,” aided the spread of misinformation and brought about a new era of celebrity culture. These consequences are not necessarily good or bad, per se. But they were certainly unanticipated.
So what? Well, Dewar’s study was ultimately directed towards understanding the effect the internet might have on the world. He concluded that the internet – still nascent at his time of writing – would be a development that came bearing vast, uncertain and incalculable consequences.
Fast forward 20 years and Dewar has been proven right. The primacy of social media has been a defining feature of the 21st century. But what started as a simple system for sharing our social selves online has become something of an entirely different order. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have inadvertently been granted undue influence and power, and their users undue sway, over the functioning of traditional media.
This is by no means a unique realisation. But the crisis social media has wrought on traditional media has been thrown into sharp relief in recent months. Bari Weiss – a high-profile opinion editor and writer at the New York Times – resigned this week with a bombshell letter to the newspaper's publisher. In it she lamented how out of step the paper was with the views of the people it is supposed to speak to – instead beholden to a rigid orthodoxy of the so-called woke and left-leaning inclinations of many of her New York Times colleagues.
Very few could rightly claim they predicted the direction social media would take, and the power it would wield over our lives
She made a critical observation: “Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space.”
The New York Times, so Weiss claims, has become so dominated by a tiny minority who import their views wholesale from an internet echo chamber, that “the paper of record” became “the record of those living in a distant galaxy, one whose concerns are profoundly removed from the lives of most people”.
This could easily be dismissed as a non-issue – or in the very least, a crisis unique to American media. But with the New York Times’ failure to predict Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016, and the British and Irish media’s by-and-large failure to anticipate Brexit, it is becoming increasingly clear that a media beholden to the vocal few, or a media that takes too seriously what is said on social media, is liable to make grave errors of judgment.
The episode is revelatory of a wider cultural phenomenon. Very few could rightly claim they predicted the direction social media – at least at its inception – would take, and the power it would wield over our lives. And, its democratising impact – for the first time people have the power to talk back to traditional media – could be cast as a positive development.
But at the same time, if Weiss is to be believed, the unintended consequences have been vast and troubling. A few loud voices can take over, redirect the agenda towards an increasingly heterodox list of acceptable views, increase polarisation between the left and the right, and drag professional media platforms away from their ability to tap into the countries they are there to speak to.
The mistake we have made appears to be a simple one. Social media and traditional media are not the same thing. And the difference between the two is obvious and critical: traditional media functions on a basis of professional structures and arbitration, checks and balances, commercial and ethical concerns. When you remove these from the mix – as is the case with Twitter – all you are left with is a deluge of disconnected and decontextualised loud voices, moonlighting as something different altogether.
In making this error, and allowing social media to have excessive and inordinate influence over our lives – believing it to be more reflective of the world than it actually is, Dewar’s thesis has been proven right. The effects of social media have been vast and incalculable and unpredicted. Acknowledging that is one thing. Taking steps to redress the balance is another. We should start by heeding the warnings of Weiss.