In the last year I’ve been doing some part time digital comms work, in part as a preparation for a more public project I’ve been working on with my Swedish based colleague, John Kellden.
Right from the start of Slugger back in 2002 I’ve kept a watching brief on how digital innovation is changing how we relate to each other. As blogging and micro blogging (Twitter/FB) has gone mainstream so have the worst (as well as some of the better) habits of the old bloggerverse.
What’s often missing, and which is a key part of John’s work, is the power (and the art) of conversation. That’s in part because of what always applied to the conventional news business applies to social media driven news cycles: if it bleeds, it leads.
With click bait riding over editorial choice, this promotes conflict over issues that build and maintain the connective tissues of society. No doubt citizens are enjoying the new power. From Libya (“Information networks will define future conflicts”) to the impact of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, spectators are on the pitch like never before.
It’s also introduced and random instability into systems that we held in place by the inability of pre network systems to facilitate the “many to many” conversations we now take for granted. Compulsive POTUS watcher Michael Wolff, has even posited the idea that Donald Trump is an accidental President (not that he didn’t want to win).
It fits with how networks operate as open as opposed to closed feedback loops. In Trump’s case it is also eerily reminiscent of Douglas Adams fictional improbability drive. There’s also an ongoing tension between the convening power of the UK Labour Party in the June election, which contrasts with the power of top down content marketing, which won the 2016 EU Referendum for Brexit.
Both work in ways the new digital platforms make hard to track in the uncharted margins of undecided and prior non voters. The problem is that much political life in the digital era is fuelled by a pervading sense of frustration and discontent (mostly with dry, or uncontextualised data which tells official stories that diverge often radically from lived reality).
Indy Johar calls it “a systemic decline of trust“ and suggests that amongst many other things we need to strive for a democracy of purpose. Viktor Frankl comes to mind on why we should never underestimate human potential our systems of learning and knowledge creation may long ago have priced out:
George Lakoff’s view is that empathy is at the core of democracy, and that in dealing with the first Twitter borne troll to become POTUS, we already have the means to deal with Mr Trump (if we still have sufficient self control/autonomy to pull against the ever flowing digital stream). This thread is worth following down to the end:
Trump uses social media as a weapon to control the news cycle. It works like a charm. His tweets are tactical rather than substantive. They mostly fall into one of these four categories. pic.twitter.com/XaK8tCpRy6
— George Lakoff (@GeorgeLakoff) January 3, 2018
At core, these are just coping strategies, right in the foothills of Sagarmatha. What does it take to prosper and invoke positive change? Well, as Kellden has put it, it is to begin to learn how to play well with others. He also cites the profound shift of platforms turned place.
We saw this process with Slugger which was quickly treated as a digital place (rather than a blogger powered platform) and one associated with the very particular physical space of Northern Ireland. Then, latterly, with Twitter/Facebook. As Ron Scroggins notes:
Our brains have adapted to treating this social field as real, as if in a meeting room, or in a geosocial environment, or on a moon shot — whatever it needs to be — and have adapted to working and playing together in the field. This sleight of imaginative utility allows us to function and develop, as human beings, as ourselves, as a team, from anywhere in the world.
As we move into a world powered by conversation and story, it gives rise to what Nora Bateson calls warm data, which “include[s] the necessary contradictions, binds (double-binds and more) and inconsistencies that occur in interrelational processes over time”. The pollster Ben Page has another term for the same slippery mess “cognitive polyphasia” or the desire two or more self contradictory things at the same time.
At its core, these are just some of the things that are driving this ‘systemic decline of trust’. But learning to play with others, and the making of spaces which prioritise conviviality and mutuality of learning in what is rapidly becoming a complex system, are a good start.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty