“When we change the way we communicate we change society.” — Clay Shirky
I have always liked this quote and saw it as being true and positive. After all, our way to communicate can only get better, right? Wrong.
Just because we find new ways to communicate, it does not mean they are better or more effective.
But lets clarify. We are talking about new channels of communication and not just the improvement of existing ones. The Internet is a platform for a wide range of communication channels of this sort and they have changed society: The Web holds information that we can access in real time and thus guide our decisions, email changed the way we work and do business, twitter altered the way we coordinate small and large groups and the way we broadcast information.
Facebook changed the way we communicate with friends, family and co-workers.
What Clay Shirky fails to mention is that there are two types of filters at work in the web. Filters we control and filters we do not control and have no knowledge on how they work. Lets call them visible and invisible filters.
More so, from the little I know on usability and user experience, it is clear that the way in which we structure a website and its features conditions the way it is used. Think craigslist versus ebay for example.
Lets take this step by step starting with filters.
Whenever we search Twitter we are building a filter that will show us the most up to date tweets which include certain words and characteristics. It is a visible filter and you know you are applying that filter to the toatlity of tweets.
A Google search is another way by which we filter information. Only this time, we know Google will rank the information based on what it thinks we are looking for. Google’s search algorithm is an invisible filter, but one I can live with given the fact that as far as I know it will not keep information from me, allowing my search query to be adjusted until I find what I am looking for.
In both cases, it is up to me to decide how much or how little I trust the information I find. For every link or piece of information from a Tweet, or every search result I get from Google, I am forced to stop and think on how reliable that information is. This is an old discussion, so we won’t get into that. It is suficient to say that our own judgement plays an important role in these two examples.
Lets jump to Facebook. This is a communication channel which is closed by nature, as a means to protect your privacy and allow you to communicate freely with your social circles. (How much we agree or disagree on how this is accomplished and to what extent is not the question. Stallman has a very long post about this issue, some of which I don’t agree with.)
Everytime I login to Facebook it will show me the “Top Stories” and there is no way to ascertain how it selects these items. It is safe to say that the number of interactions in each post plays a big part in the way it selects the top stories. So everytime I login, I make sure that I only see the most recent posts from my network.
But what is bad is the way Facebook facilitates meaningful interactions while at the same time removing any judgement from the user. In a macabre example, I have seen posts on Facebook mentioning the passing of common friends with others clicking the “like” button. Of course they do not “like” it. Had a millisecond been given to thought and instead they would comment “that is terrible, my condolences”.
The same irreflected act is seen when people find a piece of information. It is normal and expected to see people sharing infographics or photos just because they thought it was interesting. But Facebook as a communication channel removes a great number of clues for us to ascertain how reliable and trustworthy that information is. Those images or posts rarely contain links or lists of sources, and sometimes the origin of a photo is completely lost in the numberos shares, thus being stripped of context and judge with little or no research on the subject.
Facebook is a channel that changed the way we communicate and is thus changing society. The way this channel works seems to favor quick reactions and little thought, not to mention that less savy users will be blind to the “Top Stories” and privacy filters.
I don’t mean to say Facebook is evil and should be erradicated, merely to state that we need to nurture and reward critical thinking when using any communication channel. That effort must be kept as an aim by a wide number of people. From developers to designers, including of course Public Relations and other communication professionals.
Because in the long run, we all want to build a society of new ideas and cooperation and not one that merely reacts to problems without offering any shred of insight or acting towards a solution.
Strangely enough, moments after writing this last paragraph I came across a post on my to-read list. It is written by Lucy Pepper and talks about this exact problem from a more human and social perspective.