Social Media’s New Democracies

After almost a year of confinement, amidst endless hours of Zoom and Team meetings for work, conferences and social gatherings, my travel is now all intellectual. Just this past month, my reading has covered various topics ranging from Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and The Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook, Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and How Government Really Works: A field guide to bureaucracies in Canada by Jane Allt and Angela Poirier. This eclectic mix reflects a lifelong habit of reading multiple tomes at the same time to satisfy an ever-moving mind.

A common thread linking all these books is a keen interest in the human condition, the society we live in, and how to make it better. For centuries, literature has reflected who we are and was the teacher par excellence of our mores and values. The printing press opened minds and permitted the unprecedented and relatively rapid dissemination of information across vast distances, and was one of the key early pathways to revolutions in political systems and governments. In the past three decades, the shift from the primacy of print technology to electronic communication has occurred decisively. Like the printing press before it, access to—and the deformation of—information has never been so widespread. Like the candlemakers and whale hunters of old protesting the advent of the gas lamp and then the electric one, those of us who witness this shift cannot help but wonder: is it better? Is it neutral? Who decides?

The universe of digital and apps, like Whatsapp, Tik Tok, and Clubhouse, provide a new form of dissemination of information and guiding values. Clubhouse in particular has provided great fodder for reflection, as I find the nonstop phenomena manifested by this new app and its thousands of hours of simultaneous conversations a mirror reflective of a new global “mindset.”

It is also a kind of historical throwback in terms of disseminating information in oral rather than written form: I am reminded of Shakespeare, the Speakers Corner in a corner of Hyde Park in London, or the soapbox preceding WWI.

As a political scientist and communicator, I am fascinated by the language and vocabulary employed by the participants on the Clubhouse platform: skill bombs, mind hacks and other vivid expressions that speak to a total state of awareness to create deliberate actions. It is neuroscience on social media assuaging an entirely new generation of “digizens,” people far more in tune with their personal existence and self-expression of identity on digital platforms than their role as “citizens” of a democracy.

To speak of citizens inside a democracy is to employ an old fashioned lexicon that is decidedly NOT current. It brings to mind patrician images of Greek togas and the graceful columns of ancient Athens. Not even Chomsky’s polemic propaganda model of manufactured consent could have predicted Facebook as threat to American democracy and the world.

At any time, you can click onto a live “conversation” moderated by a few where thousands are listening and nothing is being recorded. Talk about FOMO : either you are in “the room where it happened,” or you’re not.

Much of the content on Clubhouse is personality and individual oriented: folks sharing personal insights and tips for becoming better at whatever they do or seek to. Clubhouse’s content ranges from self-help to entrepreneurship. All in all, not a bad thing!

Perhaps this proliferation of digital social media, with thousands to millions expressing themselves all simultaneously, provides a better or more nuanced understanding of the world we live in. I can’t help but wonder if, through all these channels, we are providing people with the information they need to be better citizens. And, at the end of the day, whose responsibility is it to provide this curriculum for the public good?

PS: As a member of the AIEQ, I was able to present on diversity and inclusion for their event Lumière sur la diversité et l’inclusion. Please enjoy this short little clip in French taken from my participation:

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