Will Social Media Destroy Western Civilization?

Posted on December 1, 2006

The title of this post sounds like a strange question to ask but Andy Rutledge has a post about how social media can be boring, mediocre and possibly even civilization ending.

Mediocrity is the only possible result of a wide sampling of opinion or input. The only idea that can survive such a mechanism is one consistent with the lowest common denominator. The mob works to ensure that all other results are weeded out. Now, we might think that it is the highest common denominator that is promoted in this environment, but it's just not so. The "highest" anything is largely held by the masses as being discriminatory and elitist. So only the lowest common denominator wins out. The point is that in this sort of environment excellence does not survive.

Excellence is not the sum of opinions. Excellence is not born of consensus. Excellence is by its very nature something far outside the average. In fact, not even good is found in the average. Average is comfortable. Average requires no great effort. Average requires nothing exceptional. Average anything is..., well, just mediocre.

It is worth discussing how much value there is too social sites that let anyone edit or select content. There is truth in the idea that the content selected by online crowds is not always the best -- often it does seem like the worst content -- or the most sensational content -- rises to the top. Businesspundit agrees that social media can produce mediocrity. Businesspundit says the downside of easy publishing tools is that you have to put up with "a million yahoos."

I'm not anti-amateur, I'm just anti-mediocrity. Yes, low barriers to entry allow us to find the diamonds in the rough - the excellent writers and thinkers who otherwise would not have a publishing platform. Unfortunately, it also means we have to put up with a million yahoos who think they know way more than they do. Years ago I heard a minister say "if anyone tells you they have all the answers, run the other way." That's why I steer clear of Web2.0 pundits.
Not everyone agrees that the most popular videos on YouTube.com or the most popular stories on Digg are the best ones. That's why people turn to different blogs and websites for a different filter or a different perspective. Most bloggers are using social media websites as a tool and not as a way of life. Many bloggers allow comments but they certainly aren't turning their blogs into wide-open wikis that anyone can edit.

There is a problem with the argument that social media is anti-elitist because the people using social media are actually the elite. Remember over 97% of humans are blogless and most people in the world don't even have access to social media. Bloggers also do a good job of pointing out experts and some of the most popular bloggers in a particular niche are often experts in their field.

Andy Rutledge also seems to be linking social media mediocrity with the downfall of civilization.

Mediocrity and decadence: these are now our birthright and we work feverishly to ensure that they're the primary features of our social endeavors. This sort of thing has happened before. History is filled with stories of how societies, great and small, have followed this path. We can read about their beginnings and their inevitable endings, in books - and now in the so-very-accurate and august Wikipedia (monument to the wisdom of crowds - /sarcasm).

The waxing relevant engines of our culture are teaching us to follow a pat, cliched script that has played out over and over again for millennia. Western culture is on the downhill slope and gathering speed toward the brick wall at the bottom. I'm talking about the hill where, at the bottom, lie the heaps of rubble that history refers to: great cultures all. Welcome to culture 2.0.

Matthew Ingram finds this idea depressing.

So, in a nutshell, Andy believes that crowds are grunting masses of baboons, and that anything that surveys a group of people will inevitably result in mediocrity. The great are pulled down amongst the rabble. Pretty depressing, right? At one point, Andy says that "Western culture is on the downhill slope and gathering speed toward the brick wall at the bottom." It made me want to crawl into bed with a copy of Wuthering Heights and a nice bottle of Dom Perignon and wait for the mob with pitchforks to attack my castle.

There is a lot about social media sites that is not praiseworthy. Many of the top 100 videos on Google Video are not important -- like the "Guy pwned by girl!" video (currently ranked 5th). Sometimes content selected or highlighted by social media sites as "the best" is often very boring, trivial, pointless, tasteless and/or stupid -- but most people using social media sites are conscious of this "reality tv" aspect of social sites. They also know that most of the people using some of these sites are very young. Social media won't end Western civilization and if Western civilization is nearing its end it isn't because of social media. Global warming, pollution, bird flu, crooked governments, censorship, nuclear war, rogue asteroids, exploding calderas are far bigger concerns and you can find them all discussed in blogs and social media websites.

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