So a few days ago I posted this response (a cleaner version to be found here at The Mark) to a piece Michael Valpy wrote in the Globe about how social media threatened the social cohesion of the country. My problem with Mr. Valpy’s piece is that it framed the question in the most negative light – seeing only the downside (and in some cases imagined) consequences of social media and none its positives. I was reminded of Steven Johnson’s delightful and intelligent counter-factual that describes a world where video games precede, and are then displaced by, books. One senses that if we lived in a universe where social media preceded main stream media Mr. Valpy would be writing columns worrying about the loss of the country’s small, rich and diverse conversations, crushed by the emergence a dominant agenda, curated by a small elite.
I was initially excited to hear that Mr. Valpy was writing a response in The Mark. Sadly, his piece wasn’t really a response. It addressed none of my critiques. Instead it focused primarily on repeating his original argument, but more slowly, and with bigger words.
I’ve re-read all three pieces and still feel good about my contribution. My main concern is that when reading the counterfactual at the end of my piece, many people have come to assume I look forward to the decline of main stream media (MSM). Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I believe in the potential of social media and, when I stepin my counterparts shoes, I also see that MSM offers us a great deal. At the same time, I don’t believe MSM is the sole generator of social cohesion, national identity, or democracy. All three existed before the arrival of MSM and, should it come to pass, will survive its decline.
As a newspaper columnist I can imagine it is frightening to see your audience splintered into smaller fragments. At the same time however, I am surprised that a national commentator can’t see how unhealthy this imaginary social cohesion was, and how unsafe the public space was for many people. Remember, this is an article that paints, in a concerning tone, the passing of a world where people, to paraphrase Mr. Valpy, attended a modern version of Mass to become aware of what others thought they should be aware of. That is not a description of an active and engaged citizenry. That is a description of sheep. Well now the sheep are awakening. Yes it is scary, yes there are unknowns, and yes there is fragmentation. But there are also enormous positives, positives I wish Mr. Valpy and others at the Globe would include in their commentary. If they did they and their readers might see what I and those I work with see: the opportunity for something that it is better than what was on offer before, no matter how rosy a picture he paints of the past.
Ultimately, I think Mr. Valpy and I do share common ground. He sees “A glorious objective” in Michale Ignatieff”s call for a public space:
“Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.”
I too believe this is a noble aim. But, while we stand on common ground, I fear Mr. Valpy and I look away in different directions (I would be interested in trying to reconcile these views – and have said as much to him). My reading of his piece leads me to believe that he looks into the past and posits that not only is such a state possible, but suggests we once achieved it. That there was a Canada where people understood what one another were saying and meant, but that it is slipping away.
For me, I think any such past was more illusion than mirror.
I look forward and see not the realization of Ignatieff’s glorious objective, but an enhanced ability to pursue it. There are no countries where people understand what each other say and mean. Only countries where citizens are good or bad at committing to try to understand what each other say and mean. In other words, home isn’t where you are understood, it is where others are prepared to go out of their way to understand you.
The opportunity of social media is it gives citizens – The People Formerly Known as the Audience – the ability to increase the range of views about which they want to be understood. This can lead to disagreements (such as the one the Valpy and I are having now) but it also forces us to face the fact that others do not understand, or agree, with what we say or mean. Whether it is disagreeing or agreeing however, the hall mark of social media has been its ability to expose us to new communities – to connect people with others who share interests and care about issues we’ve both long cared for ourselves, or have just discovered. As much as I like my country when its citizens are held to together by a common passport and newspaper, I like it even more when it is held together by a dense weave of overlapping, interconnected, conflicting and ever changing communities around hobbies, politics, personal interests, books, culture, and a million other things. Communities where new voices can be heard and new expressions of the Canadian identity can be manifested.
The promise of social media is its ability to complexify our story, and our relationships with one another. Ultimately, I see that complexity being much more interesting than illusions cast by crude mirrors reflecting only what their holders decide should be seen. Will social media be able to hold up some new “mirror”? I suspect yes, but ultimately don’t know. But whether it can or cannot, I feel optimistic that the ascendancy of social media doesn’t mean the end of our social cohesion.