When it comes to social media, everybody loves a good crisis. It allows us to vent, it stages encounters between polarised viewpoints, it spawns smug hashtags that give voice to our disengaged participation, it makes for hours of dramatic witnessing of trolling, counter-trolling, post-trolling, and other juvenilia that make up the zeitgeist of the social web, and it even produces memes and survivor stories of that famous fight of that night, when we all called each other fascists.
The fascinating part of this now-familiar trope is that almost any crisis immediately evolves into this pattern. Be it a fight between two teenagers, or a political conflict, the structure of how a crisis unfolds is exactly the same. No matter what the scope and the scale of the problem at hand — Bollywood celebrities making vacuous remarks about patriotism, elected leaders detained as political prisoners reflecting on the state of things — on social media they find an equal footing, vying for screen-time in the crowded and saturated space of our digital practices.
There are three factors that essentially lead to this false equivalence between different moments of crisis and drama that we encounter, witness, and live through in accelerated time-lapse cycles. One of the most important factors is the nature of the digital medium itself. Given the seduction of our simulated graphics on curved screens, we often forget that at its very core, digital media is just numbers. It is a logical system of counting that does not deal with intensity or intention but with largeness and value. The digital systems have a clear affinity to the laws of large numbers, and hence any time two competing phenomena unfold, the distinction is made not on its content-based importance but on the largeness of its data footprint. This explains why activists and advocates working on civil rights movements, for instance, continue to struggle to find audiences whereas facetious videos of farting cats capture prime digital real-estate. Part of it is explained by human frivolity, but a lot of it is about algorithms judging which of the two events is going to have the capacity to become a larger number, thus promoting it and pushing it to more potential audiences.
The second factor is human. It is a truth universally acknowledged that in our daily grind, we need escape and a lot of our media practices are escapes — into rage, into laughter, into joy, into numbness. Attention economies, which often are mischaracterised as about money, are actually about intensities. If our attention is the new currency, intensity is the incentive. We will click when it gives instant gratification. We will share if it excites us. We will pay attention if it pulls on our emotional and basic instincts. It is an age old mantra that advertisers used to chant in the televisual explosion — sex and violence sells. With the digital content, these hold true. The most consumed content is still porn and shooting games. And when the content is benign — unicorns pooping rainbows, cats befriending hamsters, politicians being egged by teenagers, celebrities tripping and falling — it drives us into the intensity that sex and violence hold. We react to it not because of the quality of the content but because of the intensity that they generate in us.
The third factor is actually regulatory. What we see, how we see it, how it is shaped, who is censored, who is allowed to speak, who has access, and who will be excluded from seeing and saying things. Even as different regulatory bodies are waking up to the performances of crises on social media — from people being harassed and bullied to perpetrators actually live-casting their acts of violence — they still shy away from introducing regulatory mechanisms that would deter (if not stop) people from the easy acts of violence that we have naturalised on the social web. They keep on putting responsibilities on the giant Internet companies that profit not only from exploiting the largeness of data and the manipulation of our intensities. Depending upon the companies to find the solutions when they have built and strengthened these practices is facetious.
Perhaps the biggest social media crisis that we should be paying attention to is the fact that our social media networks turn everything into a crisis, and turn every crisis into a spectacle, where the users become the performers and engaged consumers. But this is the story that is not often told, because the algorithms and the regulators make it invisible.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Digital Native: Critical Point’