A lot of people claim the Internet is a medium for communication. I generally laugh at them, although that’s not really very nice. But the fact is I don’t see much communication happening on the Internet.
Why is that? Mostly because of how communication works. You see, we communicate to share things with one another – the key here being sharing (but more on that in a moment). At the most basic level we’re trying to share either feelings or facts. Rather than try and explain this in broad terms I’m going to do it using some specific Internet examples.
Facebook and Instagram are the perfect example of platforms for sharing emotions. People post short “status updates” telling people what they feel or they share photos of familiar faces or locations that made them feel happy/sad/angry/whatever. Then people see those status updates or pictures and (ideally) share the emotion of whoever posted them.
Wikipedia is a platform for sharing facts. The moderators there like to see sources cited and try to keep editorializing out of their entries entirely although there’s no doubt they’re not entirely successful. But for the most part Wikipedia just wants to communicate facts without the author’s own opinions getting in the way. This is pretty much the exact polar opposite, in communications terms, of what people are doing on Facebook.
What’s interesting is that neither of these forms of communications is very useful on its own. Facebook only works as a source of emotional communication if you already have an emotional connection to the person who’s profile you’re viewing. If you don’t know the person then their timeline is probably just a bunch of pictures with no context and in jokes that don’t mean anything to you. Sometimes, even if you do know the person, you don’t know enough of the people that they spend time with to really understand what happens on their Facebook page on a day to day basis. Without some pre-existing emotional connection to a person Facebook just isn’t enough.
Wikipedia is similar. Sure, there’s facts there but alone they aren’t really enough to draw conclusions from. Wikipedia is an open platform, anyone can put anything they want there. It may not stay for long, but there’s no guarantee something you saw there wasn’t something someone put on the site as a prank and got taken down right after you visited. And, as I said, in spite of best efforts even Wikipedia can still lapse into bias and politically slanted views. It doesn’t appear to be commonplace but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. In short, Wikipedia is mostly useful to a person who knows enough to dig deeper or already has a basic understanding and just needs a quick refresher.
This kind of phenomenon is repeated over and over on the Internet – blogs post something that looks like facts but may not be, meme generators produce images that are entirely meaningless to those without some understanding of the context. Most of these blur the line between the factual and feelings based kinds of communication but clearly that blurring of the line is not, as I once thought, where the problem lies. If even the purest expressions of feelings driven and fact driven communication are often uncommunicative the problem doesn’t lie in the kind of communication.
And it probably doesn’t lie in the medium. When I was a wee lad Internet communication was done using archaic communications systems like e-mail and chat rooms. These ways of communicating actually worked pretty well, without much of the incomprehensibility that permeates Internet dialog today. It seems that on the Internet now people are saying things that make sense to themselves but aren’t necessarily communicating those things to others. Everyone has something to say but no one is giving any thought to how it will be understood by the people who hear it.
At best this is poor communication, at worst it’s borderline pathological behavior. The Internet has become a place overrun by a weird kind of narcissism where people believe that as long as they are making noise of some sort they have accomplished something meaningful. Whenever something they don’t like creeps up they make a hashtag and start tweeting about it but rarely give any of context and expect to be understood. It’s like looking through a keyhole at a piece of paper pressed against the doorknob so you can only see one letter at a time. Both sides have to do a lot of guesswork to make anything out of the messages being passed.
It’s no wonder that dialog on the Internet is so frequently hostile. The communications tools we have there aren’t being used to pull people together. They’re being used to construct walls of noncommunication between people. It bothers me, from time to time, and I thought I’d write a parablish story about it. What resulted is a little something I call The Antisocial Network. It’s up to you whether it says anything meaningful at all, so I hope you’ll come back next week and check it out.