Over the last few decades, social media platforms have become increasingly popular and something people spend a significant amount of time on.  In 2018, almost 3 billion people were using some form of social media, spending on average at least 2 hours every day on these platforms (Brown, 2018). The connectivity they offer has become a major benefit to our societies, and a way to bring more people together than at any point in history. However, just as social media platforms have democratized dialogue across the world, we may be seeing the rise of a few key risks with them that could begin slowing the prolific idea generation that we have seen in the past. The increasing consolidation of platforms, their limited ability to accommodate unique concepts, and the rise of misinformation, are all problems that are lowering the ability of social media platforms to continue democratizing dialogue.

Before the rise of some of the largest platforms on the web like Facebook, information was much more decentralized. A great example of this were various internet forums that were quite abundant in the early days of the internet. It was quite commonplace to have many dedicated online communities and forums for practically any interest, but even 10 years ago, these had started to die off (Heffernan, 2011). Meanwhile, in contrast, consolidated platforms like Reddit, which essentially serves as a community of connected forums all on the same platform, saw its active user base grow to 430 million, an increase of 30% in 2019 (Perez, 2019). As a content creator, participating in this broader dialogue requires a certain level of reach, something that is difficult to build out without a base. Larger sites offer just that, a readily available audience, and a higher opportunity of reaching a desired audience. However, as these platforms grow ever larger, they absorb more and more content and users, and just like a Walmart in a small town, it stifles nearly all aspects of the smaller websites that make up so much of the internet, and where many ideas originate.

While initially it may seem that the issue here is simply about where a content creator might post their material, it actually has further content implications. Social media platforms like YouTube are not personal spaces that you own after all; nearly every aspect of the site still ‘belongs’ to the company. Content creators that join these platforms have to give up some of their autonomy in the form of editorial control, which can range from being subject to outside moderation, or sitewide auto filters. There are already many cases of conflict between content creators and platforms, and time wasted dealing with the bureaucracy of a behemoth (Goggin & Tenbarge, 2019). Even posts that have minor deviations from the norm can sometimes be removed or temporarily disabled for violating specific guidelines. For content creators, it can be unnerving to know that the ultimate fate of all their hard work could potentially fall onto the decision of a faceless bot or a simple mistake by a site employee.

In addition to content controls, as briefly implied in the preceding discussion, most platforms are designed to be standardized in form and features – the sheer size of some sites demands it. However, this means that creators have to relinquish much of their design control, which plays a major part in how content is delivered. Even among social media giants, Twitter would not be the same if it looked like Instagram, and Facebook would probably look quite strange if it were designed like YouTube. The physical layout of a site is a large factor in the feel and expression of the online self, and these restrictions can significantly hamper the ability for independent content creators to build a distinct brand and identity. In the worst-case scenario, the cookie cutter designs could potentially blur the difference between creators, and rather than building their own digital self, creators might find themselves in a situation where users might simply view them as being part of the site, rather than as independent publishers.

As social media and major platforms have become increasingly prominent in our lives, so has public scrutiny of the information on these sites. This is certainly not without reason, as there have been many high-profile instances of misinformation in the news, like the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which has spawned many conspiracy theories on social media (Spring, 2020). In a recent poll involving 25,000 respondents worldwide, almost 9 out of ten of those surveyed said they have been fooled by fake news at least once (Bronskill, 2019). This, in combination with the increasing privacy concerns surrounding major platforms has made the general public much more wary of the information flowing through the internet. The biggest negative impact of these developments is that the growing distrust of information on social media has reduced how willing users are to seek out information via the internet. In the same poll in Bronskill’s article, people have reported using the internet more selectively, and have even expressed support for some levels of censorship to combat fake news. While the efficacy of these steps may or may not be effective and certainly merits a separate discussion itself, in terms of the democratization of dialogue online, these sentiments will undoubtedly have a major bearing on smaller content creators that are ‘off the beaten path’. A more skeptical user base is less likely to explore and share content, which probably won’t be an issue for the more established brands, but definitely can be a devastating blow for smaller content creators when it comes to traffic and audience reach.

While social media has brought a great number of benefits to our online dialogue, their role in the democratization of dialogue has shown signs of wavering. With the growing issues around social media that we have discussed including consolidation, control, and the effects of misinformation on public sentiments, content creators (and the general public for that matter) should be paying close attention to these developments. Losing independent voices and smaller content creators could stifle the very democratization that social media platforms have attempted to propagate.

References

Bronskill, J. (2019, June 11). Social media skepticism helping fuel distrust of the internet, survey finds. Retrieved from The Star: https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2019/06/11/social-media-skepticism-helping-fuel-distrust-of-the-internet-survey-finds.html

Brown, J. (2018, January 4). Is social media bad for you? The evidence and the unknowns. Retrieved from BBC Future: .https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180104-is-social-media-bad-for-you-the-evidence-and-the-unknowns

Goggin, B., & Tenbarge, K. (2019, August 24). ‘Like you’ve been fired from your job’: YouTubers have lost thousands of dollars after their channels were mistakenly demonetized for months. Retrieved from Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/youtubers-entire-channels-can-get-mistakenly-demonetized-for-months-2019-8

Heffernan, V. (2011, July 10). The Old Internet Neighborhoods. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/remembrance-of-message-boards-past/

Perez, S. (2019, December 4). Reddit’s monthly active user base grew 30% to reach 430M in 2019. Retrieved from Techcrunch: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/04/reddits-monthly-active-user-base-grew-30-to-reach-430m-in-2019/?guccounter=1

Spring, M. (2020, June 3). Social media firms fail to act on Covid-19 fake news. Retrieved from BBC: bbc.com/news/technology-52903680

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