Alt needs to Shift

Posted by Nishant Shah at Nov 18, 2012 07:00 AM |
People maybe talking more online, but they all seem to be talking about the same kind of thing.
Alt needs to Shift

We are well on our way to harnessing the power of this social web

Nishant Shah's column was published in the Indian Express on November 18, 2012.

If you were to recount what has happened in the world, based entirely on your tweetosphere and Facebook timelines, you might realise that everything important seems to have happened elsewhere. It is true that we live in a widely connected viral world, where if the USA sneezes, India gets a flu, but it seems as if lately, the things that I hear and read about are generally things that happen only at a global level. More surprisingly, most of the news that trends on Twitter, gets promoted on Facebook, and discussed on Google Plus, is in sync with what is being reported in mainstream media.

Of course, the voices are different. People have found a space for their opinions. There are strong critiques and alternative viewpoints around these events which are finding space in the public domain.

Much like the salons and cafes of the 18th century, which saw a whole range of new educated classes coming into the public to discuss and shape the society they lived in, the digital commons have created new public spaces of expression and discussion. This has been, indeed, one of the visions of the social web and we have reached a point where, at least for digital natives who have grown up within digital ecosystems, there is space to produce alternative opinions in their immediate environments.

At the turn of the millennium, when the social Web was being shaped, this was one of the biggest excitements — the possibility that voices from outside of mainstream and traditional media, which often get curtailed, would find contestations and alternative visions from people’s everyday experiences. And in many ways, it looks like we have achieved this dream, and found channels, communities and information strategies, which allow for conflicting views to co-exist in our knowledge spectrum. It is fascinating to realise that just a decade ago, the ways in which we talked about the key questions of our life, was so different, and was largely controlled by those in positions of power who identified only certain things as “newsworthy”.

Traditional media has also changed dramatically, with citizen reporters contributing to the content, crowdfunded information shaping news, and ordinary people being the first to witness globally significant events before the larger media complexes arrived. And now that we are well on our way to harnessing the power of this social web, there is something else that needs to be addressed.

It is the concern that increasingly people are talking more, but they seem to be talking about the same kind of thing! Sure, there are many different voices, but their focus of attention is the same. We see a whole range of alternative opinions emerging, but they are still clustered around the things that traditional media is also covering.

In the age of information overload, with so many different information streams, it feels like there is a homogenisation of information where increasingly only that which can be easily understood, easily read, easily captured to create spectacles gets to be at the centre of the attention economies. Which is why, news which is local, things which do not have global interest, and events which cannot be captured in videos on YouTube and hashtags on Twitter, do not feature in the alternative worlds of the social web. And when these locally relevant and significant things get mentioned, they have to work so much harder, to overcome the visibility threshold to get attention from the local publics.

We have found the alternative to the mainstream, but maybe it is now time to find the alternative to the alternative. We need to think of localisation of our social web. A lot of effort is made towards being on the global information highway, but we now also need to start investing energy into rendering our local contexts more accessible and intelligible, not only to the larger worlds but also to ourselves. Maybe it is time to reflect on how much we posted, read and consumed of the recent presidential elections in the USA, and try to recollect what else happened in the world. Maybe it is time to step out of our silos where we have replaced multiplicity of things with diversity of opinions about a narrow range of things. The next time you see something trending or popular, it might be a good idea to reflect on what else might be hiding behind the virality of that digital object.

This column was informed by conversations from a thought exploration on ‘Habits of Living’ supported by Brown University and Centre for Internet and Society Bangalore

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.