By Shaun Fitl
For many, the first thing done in the morning before even getting out of bed. Alarm goes off, blindly hit snooze a couple times, finally open the eyes and squint at a bright screen where to learn what happened since we went offline before bed the night before.
With a massive, growing audience that is engaged deeply and intently there comes a challenge to traditional information media as people push for grassroots, human-centric discussion.
Consider the viral appeal of using social media to connect with loved ones. The desire to engage online is strongly connected to things like peer-pressure, communicative culture and crowd psychology.
“I think people want to feel included in things- they don’t want to be ignored or left out,” says University of Guelph-Humber professor of psychology Dan Andreae. “There is social pressure to be a part of social media. It becomes a competition in some ways- to be included and accepted by people is part of human nature.”
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former CBC managing editor and director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto, says that in the past, media organizations thought that a comment section would be both a journalistic and democratic service.
“If it’s really an indicator of what people are thinking then I think it should be encouraged- if it is just a place to rant then it might have less usefulness,” says Dvorkin. “It may just be the guy in the basement in his pajamas with too much time on his hands- I don’t think it is an accurate reflection of public opinion.”
Dvorkin says that one of the main issues that concerned CBC in the mid-90s was trying to identify “who [the] audience was, how are they evolving, where were they coming from and what kinds of things are they interested in.”
According to that era’s CBC mandatory Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) audience report it was discovered that people weren’t explicitly ‘enjoying’ the news but instead had some sense of civic obligation or duty to do it; a need to be informed.
Dvorkin also identified a key distinction between traditional audience research and its modern formation. Essentially, numbers and appeal are not always connected and in some cases contradict each other.
“If you go to a party and say ‘I don’t do social media there are some people- who will look askance at you and wonder how you could possibly live in this world and be informed or cool if you’re not involved,” says Andreae. “It satisfies a definite psychological need in people to be [included]- things change instantly and people [feel the need] to be informed right away and talk to their friends about it.”
Andreae also says that intuitions about public opinion may be distorted or manipulated by modern net society. In a competition between an opinion with 60 likes and an opinion with five the more popular opinion will generally win out.
“People tend to agree with the majority,” says Andreae. “It is particularly persuasive or has become more so in the past few years.”
Ian Miller, a PhD social psychology candidate at the University of Toronto, says that this correlates with the public’s skepticism of truth itself.
“There is a reputational authority that goes along with a newspaper where you assume there is an editorial board and everything gets vetted and the attorneys look at it and the fact checkers follow up, etc.,” says Miller.
“The number of steps between a content-creator on Twitter versus a content-creator using a news platform is, well, [the former] is basically direct. There is no editorial review,” says Miller.
This direct form of communication, combined with ever-growing methods of audience interactivity such as ‘likes,’ ‘retweets,’ ‘upvotes,’ etc., creates an alternative to traditional media.
It was once assumed that this exponentially growing interactivity would have vast evolutionary consequences for things like linguistic communication and media consumption. Surprisingly, professor Sali Tagliamonte from the University of Toronto department of linguistics says otherwise.
“What we see on social media and the Internet are some really interesting funky ways of using language- the thing that is interesting from a language scientist’s perspective is that most of those modifications are at a very superficial level,” says Tagliamonte.
Professor Tagliamonte explains that things like spelling differences or short forms are common but “underlying that superficial funk what we see is that the linguistic system is staying pretty much intact.”
Derek Denis, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) postdoctoral fellow from the department of linguistics at University of Victoria, echoes Professor Tagliamonte.
“When TV became a thing there was this idea that it would serve as a great standardizer of the language- people thought it would change language such that dialect diversity would be reduced but we never really saw that,” says Denis.
In the same way that TV created a form of dialect of slang of the English language, Denis says that social media has created something called a “genre” or “register” of speech comparable to slang and dialect and, again, superficial or insignificant.
However, innovations of language have made it difficult to ignore the broader communicative changes brought on by the Internet, such as the meme.
“I think memes are a reflection of culture and I also think culture is shaped by memes- they feed off of one another,” says Miller.
The overarching changes to the foundations of society and communication on the Internet are often up for debate, but one thing is for sure– The internet is only in its infancy. Like a child taking baby steps, its full-grown manifestation is near-impossible to predict.