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Social media arrived in reality before anybody had given their effect on societal environments any thought. Based on a misapprehension of how humans interact as social beings, political processes today have been replaced by extensive networking, introducing new rules to how people form and shape opinions. Democracy as a form of government is weakening, while autocracy is on the rise. In his essay, Marc Nottelmann-Feil gives a matter-of-fact overview over developments everyone of us has already experienced for him- or herself. He illustrates why this revolution in human communications makes reconciling the interests of individuals, political groups and nations more difficult rather than easier.
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Marc Nottelmann-Feilread Japanese Studies, Mathematics, Logic and Philosophy of Science. Since 2000 he has been working for the “EKO House of Japanese Culture” in Duesseldorf. He is a Buddhist priest of the Jodo Shinshu school.
Beware of E-Mails!
Facebook or the Invention of Synthetic Mass Communication
The Structure of So-Called Conversations
Opinion-Forming in the Virtual Society
From Clear-Cut Front Lines to Civil War
Twitter - Leading Opinion Through Self- Advertising
What is truth, Mr Pilatus?
Humans and the Vision of Humanity in the Social Media
First-Aid Measures and Wrong Expectations
Peace With Facebook & Co?
On A Final Note
There are years in which history seems to pick up speed. Old political structures long considered as rock-solid and unassailable suddenly break apart to be replaced by something new, but nobody knows what it will be. Since 2011 the tides in the world have been turning: the Middle East is burning, the EU is disintegrating, Russia has returned to its expansion politics inspired by geopolitical thinking, and the United States of America have elected a president who places his country’s interests above all else.
The West is still at the helm. But when one takes a step back to look at the whole picture, ignoring small details to get only the rough outlines, it is, after all, the vision of humanity developed in Western philosophy that is at work behind all these phenomena. The human being is considered as a creature driven by greed that fights against its fellows to satisfy its personal interests. Competition rules all walks of life, including states and worldwide business. Nothing is more important - for the individual as well as nations - than moving on as fast a possible; any opportunity for profit must be identified as early as possible and used ruthlessly, at the expense of the slower moving or more circumspect, where necessary. This attitude leads to deregulation, more free trade at all costs, to the careless consumption of our world’s finite resources, and to the increasingly painful gap between the rich and the poor. Ultimately, most, if not all, problems that have led up to the described transformations start with the vision of humanity outlined above.
I do not wish to explain why the world is in crisis, though. The questions I have take a different approach: Why are we unable to engage in a social discourse that allows us to find sensible answers to those challenges, although the methods of communication have improved in recent years by all but a quantum leap? Social media are connecting the whole world: never was it easier to make connections, get information about current problems and discussions in even the remotest part of the planet and chime in everywhere. Why are humans incapable of talking to each other and working together towards finding solutions? Any person in Germany with an interest in Ugandan politics can effortlessly stay on top of things: they can learn to understand the thoughts of both government and opposition and tweet or post their own thoughts, almost as if they actually lived in Uganda. When has there ever been such totally unlimited, unfettered freedom! In like manner, all political parties and media in Germany, even the smallest political societies, have web pages on the Internet and German citizens can reach every member of the Bundestag with just a few mouse clicks, seeming to put grass-roots democracy within easy reach - yet this fact does not appear to make our society more content or balanced. Quite the contrary: there are burning issues at every turn. Only recently, in his parting speech, German President Joachim Gauck even said that democracy was threatened.1 Only two years earlier, the great majority of Germans would have considered theirs as one of the most stable democracies in the whole world.
Aren’t we getting the basics all wrong? The social media are connecting people around the world, making society move closer together - that is our first, seemingly positive impression. The reality we are witnessing, however, is totally different: Since the launch of Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), political structures have been disintegrating: The Arab Spring (2011) - applauded by the West for toppling Arab autocracies - started in one of the Internet cafés of Tunis and Cairo. For a moment it seemed as if Western Enlightenment, following the eternal laws of history, would prevail over Eastern tyranny: the impoverished peoples of North Africa rose up against their corrupt elites. However, the Arab Spring was not followed by an era of Arab Reason but by a power vacuum exposing the various societies’ inner conflicts even more clearly, causing them to erupt into disastrous civil wars. Why were the social media capable of shaking up the political structures of these countries, but failed to provide the social glue of solidarity? Why have these countries, to this day, not found their way back to peace, although Facebook could make it so easy to talk to enemies - unencumbered by international diplomacy and laboriously arranged peace conferences? It seems that the social media may be able to stir up a society but lack the power to bring about a process of social healing.
In 2016, the wave of disruption associated so closely with social media finally reached Western countries and societies. Events occurred that neither pollsters nor established media had predicted or reckoned with. Both the Brexit as well as the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States struck the world like lightning out of the blue, because the established media - television, press, and radio - continued to do their job the way they had always done it: they published reports about party conventions, held talk shows with varying participants, but failed to take notice of the semi-public sectors (plural!) inhabiting in the social media. Periodicals like the “Guardian” or the “New York Times” revelled in the illusion that they were the undisputed opinion leaders and that the opinions discussed in the social media would therefore follow their lead. But social media follow different laws, that much should be clear by now. Donald Trump managed to prevail over the combined power of the established media by means of Twitter and lowbrow TV shows. The ensuing shock waves running through the most powerful democracy of the world are an eye-opener to how ruthless a catalyst for disruption the social media are.
So, we should stop whitewashing social media as a means of non-hierarchical discourse, as a trailblazer for grass-roots democracy or as a tool for educating people and public! Instead, we should start to explore how they actually work and what impact their use has on society. Finally, we should ponder the question what we want our future life with these social media to look like, or in other words, how they and we have to change so life in this new situation will be possible.
1 Joachim Gauck’s parting speech of January 17, 2017.
The human being is a creature that can abruptly change its communication patterns. There is no such thing as community without communication, whereas communication without community is quite possible. At the beginnings of our history as humans, communication and community were almost identical: Community was social interaction that provided the setting for communication. In a small group of hunters and gatherers, every one knows every one else, each individual knows many things about his or her fellows and there are hardly any secrets between the group members. Every communication is essentially public, like the hunting bag, that is publicly divided up between the community members. Later, as those communities grew larger, it soon became impossible to know every member of the group. This lead to the development of an increasingly complex role distribution defining who was in charge of what situation. New forms of exchange emerged: the messenger, the written word, letters, the printing press, etc - each of which completely changed the communication patterns of society. Communication became more abstract and less dependent on direct interaction between humans. When using the modern-day media that developed over the past hundred years, when writing a letter or reading a book, we are performing a communicative act even though we may feel terribly lonely in the process.
The emergence of new communication methods in times of radical technological change is neither surprising nor a bad thing in itself. Yet, any novelty also requires increased attention. As long as its significance is not fully understood, this novelty will pose a threat, because it is considered to be no more than a playful continuation of something old. There is a critical phase in which people stick to their set ways while the novelty appears in the guise of the familiar. People tinker and ponder, they are willing to make some, though clearly limited, space for the novelty, assuming that they will be able to find some arrangement with it. But the novelty does not fit into old moulds, it defies classification; instead, the novelty is strong enough to incorporate old ways. This means the first step to overcoming a crisis caused by innovation is to clearly identify what makes the novelty different from what is familiar.
A good ten years ago I noticed for the first time how tightly communication’s success or total failure is linked to the applied medium. Back then I was charged with the task of chairing a small association whose members were scattered over a large geographical area. Due to the long distances, both sides, the association members and I, did not know each other very well. Still, there were several tasks that needed to be completed and on top of that, we needed to develop a concept to shape our association’s future. I made an astounding experience during that time: Whenever I wrote e-mails to make suggestions or provide information to my fellow associates, the results were often grievous misunderstandings; some of the e-mail exchanges flew completely off the handle and degraded into mutual accusations, although, from my point of view, I had always made a point of being understanding and diplomatic. However, these problems disappeared invariably the moment I picked up the telephone and talked to the person who had felt slighted. Talking, it took no more than a few minutes to dissolve all tension and overcome mistrust, causing doubts to quickly disappear into thin air. Obviously, the written word was inadequate to pass on information or discuss facts and situations. It was the tone of voice, speaking slowly or rapidly, an approving chuckle or waiting and listening that got communication going and led to a mutually satisfying negotiation outcome. E-mail correspondence often caused both sides to misjudge the weight of a certain statement, causing the reader to assume that the author had ulterior motives - which did not exist - or making the reader feel that he wasn’t being taken seriously.
The forwarding of e-mails makes things even worse, because the parties to a conflict always try to gather allies to help them. When you are convinced that you are right and the other person is wrong, it is extremely easy to take a particular passage from an e-mail and - interpreting it your way - forward it to a large group of people you know. For the author of the original e-mail message this procedure has frequently terrible consequences, because he suddenly has to justify himself to people he hadn’t even thought of at the time he wrote the e-mail.
E-mail (and its little brother, the almost forgotten fax) was the first faceless and voiceless high-speed communication medium that radically cut off all other forms of non-verbal communication. Another feature setting email apart from its precursors is its completely different management that allows almost endless duplication, forwarding and long-term storage. Woe betide those who fail to grasp the difference between new and old media!
A telephone conversation is a far more natural form of communication, not only because it can convey voice modulations but also because it makes the instant of communication unique. Nobody expects to be confronted with an audio recording of some telephone conversation they have had; at least until recently was something that happened only in rare exceptions. Snail mail may contain information that has been fixed, but unless it’s a document from some government authority or an invoice, those letters frequently end up in the bin. Snail-mail administration also requires a lot of effort. E-mail, on the other hand, can be left on the server as long as the user has no reason to the delete it; storage space on a server has virtually no limits and search functions ensure fast retrieval. E-mail messages can be retrieved in no time at all for re-discussion, their contents exactly the same as at the time they were created.
Let us assume you had a bad day because the workman who was supposed to repair your washing machine installed the wrong tube. Although the workman’s invoice is already lying on your desk, your washing machine is still leaking water. Before making your complaint to the workman you need to let off some steam and grab the phone to ring a friend. Being listened to by a friend and sharing some bad experiences you two made with workmen helps you to regain your composure. Next, you call the workman and explain the problem to him, using calm and friendly words. If you had written two e-mails - instead of making phone calls - tone and message would have been totally different and could have placed you in an extremely awkward situation, if the e-mail intended for your friend had accidentally ended up going to the workman. Try and imagine what would happen if you were a prominent politician and your e-mail had arrived on a WikiLeaks server! The Chamber of Handicrafts would immediately receive statements, copied from your e-mail, along with comments, and a day later you would be able to read articles about your “duplicity” in the yellow press.
People writing e-mail give up control over their written words, and they have to trust the recipients to handle these words like a true trustee would. Phone calls are transitory, e-mails are forever. Any statement made during a phone call can be revised again and again, while the memories of the conversation partners soften it: in hindsight, the involved parties weren’t that furious after all (because the solution to the problem had already been devised), the wording may have been a bit unfortunate (the upcoming compromise is already forming), and some of the stuff is no more than a blurry memory (Fortunately! So let’s just forget it!) – This has always been our natural way of communicating, and we practise doing it that way all our lives long. E-mail, on the other hand, is a document that won’t go away so easily.
DO NOT CONFUSE THE NEW WAYS WITH THE OLD WAYS - that’s the core of media competence. Most people, from Jane Doe to Hillary Clinton, believe that an email server is the equivalent of a snail-mailbox that can be locked with a simple mailbox key, namely a password. The snail-mailbox key on the key ring I carry is the most primitive key of all the keys in the bunch; with a little judicious fiddling, I can actually open my mailbox without using its original key. Still, I am not wasting much thought on that because I cannot imagine that anyone would be interested in the usual snail mail I get. What would a thief gain from stealing the balance statements I regularly get from my bank? I would watch my mailbox more closely only if I were a single woman afraid of becoming victim to stalking. Maybe I would have a post office box at the nearest post office.
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