Social media optimism vs pessimism

Early in 2007, hundreds of years ago, I wrote a short article called ‘Media Studies 2.0′, and published it on my website. It sort of stirred up some controversies – which had sort of been the intention.

In 2011 I bundled a revised version of that, and a bunch of other related articles and interviews, into a shortish Kindle book, which I called Media Studies 2.0, and Other Battles around the Future of Media Research.

One of the things in there is an interview, originally published in the book Mashup Cultures, but extended since then, where the questions have been submitted by many different people via email and Twitter.

Here’s an extract — one new question and answer, which hasn’t been published online before, which concerns the timeless question of whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about the power of social media.

Alison Powell (@postdocal) on Twitter: To what extent is online creativity configured by concerns of ‘old’ media studies: gender, class, etc?

David Gauntlett: Obviously, online activity is one part of social activity, happening in our actual social world, and so we would expect it to reflect characteristics of that world. Also, of course, it has a technological skew – favouring people who do not feel uncomfortable with digital technologies – and is dependent on internet access. Access here means not just whether you have access to internet infrastructure, but also whether you have the confidence and skills to go online – it’s a social and cultural thing, not just a technical detail.

‘Old’ media studies, as you call it, was concerned with the representations of gender, class, and race – in other words, how the elite media producers were representing these axes of identity. Now, when we’re talking about a world where people are representing themselves, that’s all quite different. Of course, it is still possible that the most dominant and visible elements of online creativity might function to inscribe particular normative notions of identity – if, to give a hypothetical example, all the most popular comedy videos on YouTube tended to be laddish, homophobic kinds of comedy made and shared primarily by young men. (As I say, that’s not the case, it’s a hypothetical example). If that did happen, the interesting and new thing is that you can be sure there would be a swift backlash, with those views being rigorously challenged in the same medium. So on the one hand you would get campaigns against offensive or one-sided material, and also you would see a blooming of comedy from alternative, non-hegemonic viewpoints, in response. Because it’s all an ongoing conversation, and there are no commissioners or gatekeepers.

Some commentators have presented arguments which suggest that social media can help to overturn hierarchies of power – as in Clay Shirky (2008), although his examples are typically about organising information and social movements, rather than politics, social inequalities, or dictatorships. More recently, however, Shirky’s arguments have been discussed in that political context, in particular around the question of whether Twitter did or did not play a crucial role in the 2009 protests in Iran, or the 2011 uprising in Egypt. Shirky has thus been able to clarify his own position. He has admitted that his work may have fuelled an ‘overly simplistic’ view of the power of social media to overturn authoritarian regimes, whilst overlooking the ways in which the visibility of online activism can be used against people by repressive regimes (Shirky, 2009). Nevertheless he defends the argument that social media do make a significant difference in political protests, and can be used as tools to share public knowledge and coordinate action; although the response of a regime is also crucial to how the situation develops.

I think it is to Shirky’s credit that he admits missteps, and is openly developing a more complex argument. In a recent article (Shirky, 2011) he has gone further, emphasising that social media do not provide any kind of quick solution in political situations, and highlighting instead that the most important role of social media is in the long, slow process of fostering civil society and a strong public sphere. So he is still saying that social media can be powerful tools (alongside other forms of public discussion) in the process of challenging established power and seeking social progress, but he firmly indicates that this will be a long and gradual process, rather than any kind of quick fix.

In response to those such as Shirky who are broadly optimistic about the power of social media – even with his more recent, cautious formulations – others critics have gone the other way. I heard Natalie Fenton speaking recently, for instance, and she described Twitter as the ‘preserve of a few’ (Fenton, 2011). But if seven million people are active Twitter users in the UK, as reported recently, obviously that’s not everybody, but it’s 14 per cent of all adults in the country (online or not), or to put it another way, 14 per cent of all internet users. Or it’s almost a quarter of all the UK adults who use the internet regularly. This body of users are liable to be somewhat more middle-class and professional, on average, than the overall population, it’s true; but it’s hardly the most exclusive, elite enclave. I can think of a lot of media that you should be calling the ‘preserve of a few’ before you stick the knife into Twitter, an open platform used by millions, where you only need internet access and basic skills in order to post and share content.

Fenton then went on to argue that Twitter actually reinforces social hierarchies and inequalities. Now, I can imagine that someone might like to respond to Shirky by making the argument that Twitter makes no difference to hierarchies and inequalities. It shouldn’t be too hard to make that case, especially since Twitter was not designed for that purpose. However, Fenton is not just saying that Twitter is over-hyped on the positive side – she is saying it actually makes things worse.

She supported this by referring to a study which apparently showed that people only follow people on Twitter who are already, as she put it, ‘like them’. Now, what does this mean? Who are these people who are ‘like me,’ and in what sense – is their set of views about lots of different topics exactly the same set of views as mine? How often do you meet someone who agrees with you about every issue? Of course, what she really means is that they are simply more likely than not to have some demographic characteristics in common. The study cited as evidence just shows that if you compare whether the people that people follow on Twitter are more similar to their own demographic profile, or are more similar to a completely random generic profile, then it’s the former. But life’s like that. It’s enormously predictable – the opposite finding would be incredibly unlikely. The same applies, for instance, to real-life friendships – and more strongly, I would expect.

So then you wonder – does this mean that when, say, a middle-class white woman arranges to have coffee with a few friends, who happen also to be middle-class white women, she is actually reinforcing social hierarchies and inequalities? That sounds a bit harsh. And doesn’t it also mean that she will have an incredibly boring time, since these people will already have exactly the same views as her?

I certainly encounter a wide range of views about things via Twitter, and I’m sure that must be quite typical. The people I follow on Twitter are more diverse than my group of real-life friends and colleagues, for instance – almost inevitably – and the perspectives I see bobbing past on the Twitter stream are less homogenous than those I get in my newspaper. That doesn’t mean Twitter is perfect, or is the most diverse communications platform ever invented. But those who denounce it are also going have to denounce real-life friendships, and newspapers, too, it seems – and perhaps also explain why they are so keen to attack a service where people can directly communicate with each other in a way which they couldn’t do before.



  1. “Preserve of the few” does seem a rather ill-chosen phrase. I’m tempted to say Fenton is using it as a cliché, without having thought about its meaning. In order to be a “preserve”, there would surely have to be some exclusionary barrier, some *scarcity* to being involved in Twitter’s conversations?

    I think there’s a longer thread you’re pulling on with the bit about denouncing friendships. A lot of the ways we’ve framed fairness and equality in recent times have treated basic human sociability as part of the problem. But that’s a theme I’ll take up elsewhere, on another day.

  2. Am writing a paper about this so would be interested in knowing what the ref is for Fenton’s argument (ie what’s “Fenton 2011″?) And for that matter what’s the study she cited?

    • The reference is:

      Fenton, Natalie (2011), speaking on panel ‘Foreign Reporting in the Age of Twitter’, at What Makes Good Journalism? conference, University of Westminster, London, 8 June 2011.

      The study she was referring to, I’m not sure what the reference is but could try to find out for you. I asked Natalie Fenton about it afterwards to verify if it’s one of those studies, as outlined above, which look to see if the spread of followers is something other than a completely random global distribution of people. She confirmed that that’s what had been done.

  3. charlie beckett:

    One of the problems with this debate is the ‘optimist’ v ‘pessimist’ labels.
    Some people associate optimism with idealism, a progressive, reformist outlook. Others associate pessimism with a realist, informed, critical approach. It is, of course, perfectly possible to be both (and perhaps neither?!).

    • You’re quite right, of course, Charlie. That’s what I normally argue — although it may not come across here. I’ve said before (e.g. in ‘Media Studies 2.0 – A response’, included in the Kindle book mentioned above): can’t we *both* be concerned about the practices of some social media businesses, which critics typically focus on, but also accept that at an individual level, social media can be powerful tools for communication and self-expression. Both things can be true. But the people I’m calling ‘pessimists’ here typically take the negative evidence as conclusive proof that social media can never be any good for anybody ever, which seems polarised and unrealistic.

      So I think we kinda agree?!

  4. Alison Powell:

    Interesting response to my question. I’m particularly interested by what you said about the difference between ‘new’ and ‘old’ media partly being in the ways that representations have shifted from collective and produced by media industries to individual. This is one of the enormous limitations that I see with the theory of the ‘network’ society: it’s a whole set of individuals linked together but with no real way theorization of how social life works. Of course friendship is based on homophily – but the idea of ‘society’ is based on an acknowledgement of the innate qualities of humans, and the things that bring them together despite their differences.

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