I’ve got this idea in my head. Maybe you’ll bear with me as I try putting it into words.
The line separating traditional ‘old’ media from social ‘new’ media is blurring. Once distinct, the two forms are now entangled. Users seem to have recognized the conveniences of their combination, while media outfits have recognized the profit potential. As this trend perpetuates itself, the media landscape of new is increasingly populated by the heavy-hitters of old—the CNNs and New York Timeses of the world. Often, these titans arrive with a thud—a little late and a little out-of-place, maybe, but welcome nonetheless.
One look at the average person’s Twitter feed is enough to confirm this fact. Wedged between 140-character snippets of esoterica shared by friends, family and celebrities, Tweets from the likes of the Washington Post and the BBC tend to stick out, shining like specks of incongruous wisdom amid so much babble. A transformation is underway, apparently: a marriage of sender, receiver and medium. This is an important development, we’re often told. It’s liberating and democratizing, socializing and galvanizing.
But I believe it’s not as simple as all this. I hold that there are risks—risks posed to those grand fixtures of old media whose legitimacy we depend on for quality information; risks the information-consuming public is in no position to discount. As established media brands—like the New York Times, for instance—continue to migrate to emerging online platforms—like Twitter—those platforms’ authority and perceived credibility is made immediately more potent. They are bestowed, in some sense, with the cumulative institutional heft of the brands that in droves are joining their ranks.
I ask: If the New York Times operates on Twitter, is Twitter legitimate as a source of news? By extension, if the New York Times has 3.7 million Twitter followers, is 3.7 million a significant metric to assess the authority of a news source on Twitter? Of course not, but while the illogic underlying these questions is plain to see in a rhetorical context like this, such arithmetics, I argue, tend to operate subconsciously and en masse, at a level immune to group scrutiny. Such is the danger I speak of: Social media’s ongoing conflation as a venue for both casual exchange and news-sourcing leads to serious questions about how we engage with and establish trust among media in our everyday lives.
The result, as I see it, is a trend toward credibility aggrandizement. Many whose opinions ought not to matter now do. Informational echo chambers of spurious thought are emerging with rapidity and authority. In these self-referential, circularly-reasoned spaces, cult personalities and pseudo-authorities tend to predominate. They are the beneficiaries of a newly raised tide that has lifted all boats. While established media do not feed the chamber directly, they exist in the same realm as it. The two now share a common medium, and mediums live or die by their legitimacy—a commodity born, often, of entry barriers, of which social media have few.
While Twitter is indeed a vast social-informational space, it is as yet little more than a small island in the sea of online communication. Cohabitants of this island are more intimately connected than they might realize.
Don’t mistake me: Twitter and its ilk represent an undeniable force for good. As we saw this year, citizens of various countries across the Middle East have leveraged tools like Twitter to significant geopolitical effect. The conclusion I’m drawing is not that we should be wary of social media; not that it’s a double-edged sword that must be wielded but wielded carefully. That’s both self-apparent and boring. Instead, I’m urging that as the transition from traditional ‘old’ media to social ‘new’ media ambles onward, users remain vigilant and circumspect of the information they choose to consume.