We exist in a world where information is coming at us all the time; through our phones, through TVs at the gym and the bar and the waiting room, through our browsers open to news and social media while we are at the office. It is easy to feel a little overwhelmed by the deluge of media washing over us in a myriad of forms. The readings for this week made me consider not only how we get our information, but how we choose which sources and what information is valid to us and how we have transitioned from a passive audience to an active one – or so we think. Unrestrained freedom of choice from the media buffet allows us to create our own reality. There has been an excess of talk about the “social media bubble” after the presidential election – how the polls got it wrong, how nobody saw this coming. I started to consider how transparent immediacy and hypermedia play into this problem. We hear only what they want because we are not only active listeners, we are active ignorers. We aren’t knocked over by the endless waves of information, we surf them, joyfully. We all have social media accounts (okay, not all of us, but most of us can’t afford solar panels and need a real toilet) and we all use these platforms to different ends. Some of us are far more active than others, building up a large base of followers to our clever tweets and posts, creating a community of participants that think the same way that we do. We retweet and repost what we like and agree with, and our friends do the same, and so on. When someone says something we like, we… well, we “like” it, and when someone says something we don’t like, we unfollow them, delete their comment, or (worst case scenario, sorry [not sorry] aunt Christine) we unfriend them.
So, now that we’ve all created our social media echo-chambers, we read only what we want to read and assume that the world thinks like us, because we have created an environment where our world is made of like minded Facebook friends. We cross-reference this imagined reality on multiple platforms of carefully constructed safe-zones and follow the same people on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We only visit news websites with stances we agree with, or at least the ones we consider neutral. We roll our eyes, mumble and look away when the TV at the laundromat is tuned into a network that we don’t agree with.
Like most, I am constantly checking my phone. When I am at my computer, at the minimum I have Facebook, Twitter and NPR tabs telling me what is going on at the world (usually double that). They are often all telling me the same thing in different formats. I am “immersed” in windows and apps, and while I am aware of the hypermediacy of the format, I may not be aware of the content that is missing. Have I not created a digital, transparent interface when the skew of the content becomes repetitive and self-reinforcing? Bolter and Grusin discuss immersion in a virtual reality where the senses are no longer aware of the medium – but I would argue another version of a virtual reality is when we get to choose what to base our truths on from the vast spectrum of media. When we effectively blot out the remainder of the spectrum which we do not agree with, when there is no dissenting voice to make us question or think critically, we become convinced that everyone must agree with us. This is a dangerous reality to exist in, and we are now seeing the results and suffering the consequences. A schism has opened in our society because neither side even acknowledges that the other’s thought processes may be valid. Instead of using the internet as a platform for civil discourse, we get snarky behind a screen or delete, delete, delete.
Everyone thinks they are actively engaged in the media. We not only take in information, we are putting it out into the world. Instead of having the nightly news read to us after dinner and waiting for us on our doorstep in the morning, we go out and find the news for ourselves and participate in spreading it. We want to believe that we are out to find the purest form of truth, but there is an awful lot of content to sort through, and sources are sometimes questionable – even untraceable. But we are thinking for ourselves! Or are we? Sardar and Van Loon’s discussion on the evolution of media studies suggests that the news was once thought to serve the purpose of telling the people what they needed to hear. Consumers were meant to absorb, but not filter the nightly news and the local paper. Media was meant to be a unifying platform to align opinion. Over time, that perception shifted as people began to think critically about what they were hearing. The media could no longer change opinion, because minds had already been made up. People were looking for reinforcement of what they already thought. Now, not only are our opinions unchangeable, media that lacks reputable sources – shared memes and fake news – compound the issue. We already want to believe news that furthers our position. When we see an article on a social media platform that aligns with our beliefs, do we fact check it, or click “share” before considering the source? Now that anyone can produce media for consumption, it is our responsibility to watch what we eat very, very carefully. Active consumption does not equal critical thinking.
– Pam Enlow