Enlightment is entering the virtual sphere

butterflyIn my last post I was writing about The transformative power of social media in the Middle East and how consumers turned to prosuments, beeing  both consumers as well as producers by organising protests with the help of social media platforms as well as producing and distributing information by filming, documenting and blogging about current events when official repporting was compromised.

In recent discussions of the Twitterrevolution, a controversial issue has been whether social media platforms are a revolutionary tool for social change promoting the digitalization of democracy for good or playing into the hands of regimes and opponents as it happend in Syria (see also my last post) .

Virtual Villages

On the one hand, one group of observers argues that despite the posibilities the internet offers to connect people, it eqaully seperates them. Enrico de Angelis who is pointing out the seperating forces at work in Syria, would certainly agree with Thomas J. Bittman. On his view, the world is getting more and more polarized as like-minded people tend to stick together and rebuild their villages in a virtual world, in an attempt to prove outsides to be wrong. In this attempt, tons of biased and subjective data is launched which is taken for real. He concludes that we need to train future generations in critical thinking skills. As one of the most prominent proponents of this view, he puts it, “ Idealists saw the Internet and the connectivity it created as the great melting pot of ideas. We could have different opinions, but reach a consensus; different views of facts, but bad data would be self-correcting. The absolute opposite has occurred, because people are using the Internet. We can connect with anyone, and discuss any idea – but we don’t. People seek out like-minded people, and become more and more radicalized in their views. We are still villagers, but unlike the village of old, we get to define our own village, and we tend to build villages full of people who are just like us. Different views of facts create entire worldviews based on falsehood, or spin. Bad data propagates, mutates and spreads like wildfire.”

The informed Society

On the other hand, another group of people has a much more positive view on the effects on society of the internet in general and social media platforms in particular. According to the Pirate Parties International, society is turning into a information society, meaning that they believe in the informed citizen . The informed citizen is basically what Bittmann is hoping for future generations: Well informed people with critical thinking skills that can distinginguish between right and wrong, true and false. The Pirate Parties go even so far that they believe that the time has come that citizens need less represantatives because through information and communication among each other they are finally well informed enough to take responsibility.

The number of prosuments keeps growing in 2013

In sum, then, while one group argues that the internet is dividing people, fostering polarization and lies, another believes in the human potential to seek out the truth and right through engaging in (online) discussions with others. Alex Howard, expert in the field of social media, digital journalism and collaborative technologies in companies predicts for 2013 “While the process of gathering and sharing news in a hyper-networked environment will only grow more messy as more people gain access to tools to publish around the world, this trend isn’t going backward. Despite the trend toward the “broadcast-ification of social media,” there are many more of us listening and sharing now than ever before. Expect journalism to be a more participatory experience in 2013.” (Read all of Howard’s predictions for 2013 here).  For example, even though Jake Levin is articulating his view that social media platforms develop into communication tools were one communicates actively to many who passivly consume his broadcast as it always has been in newpapers, radio and on TV. Howard himself points out the growing tendancy of  consumer participation in the creation of content. As he puts it:

 “Open source software and citizens acting as sensors have steadily been integrated into journalism over the past few years, most dramatically in the videos and pictures uploaded after the 2009 Iran election and during 2011′s Arab Spring. Citizen science looks like the next frontier. Safecast is combining open data collected by citizen science with academic, NGO and open government data (where available), and then making it widely available.”
Enlightment is entering the virtual sphere
Howard’s  understanding of citizen science certainly confirms the Pirate Party’s conception of the enlightened (wo)man. Of course those who agree with Bittmanns view on virtual villages might object that for instance the Pirate Party exactly is a virtual village where like-minded people connect to each other and reinforce each other views. In sum, then, I would argue that this debate is  a continuation of the Age of Enlightenment entering the digital sphere. Whether one interprets prosuments as a sign of enlightenment and self-determination or one shares a more sceptical view such as Levin in “The broadcast-ification of social media” and Bittmann in ” The consumerisation of truth” eventually drains down to two very basic philosophical attitudes; either one believes in the potential of the human mind or not.
In the next post I am going to examine Consumerization a bit closer. What does it mean in a business-related context and what effects does consumerisation have on business? And how does it all go together with the feedback economy….?

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