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The (Potential) Democracy of Social Media

This past April, I was able to attend the Syracuse School of Information Studies’ inaugural #140Cuse Conference, an examination of the “state of now.”  Through a diverse line up of talented speakers (props to @dhrosen), participants were immersed in a discussion of the effects of social media and IT throughout the world.  Numerous industries and sectors of life—education, advertising, non-profits (to name a few)—demonstrated the pervasive effects social media can have.  Yet, despite this diversity, one specific theme of discussion stuck with me: democracy.  I personally left #140Cuse in awe at the democratic power of social media.

Social Media’s Democratic Successes

Indeed, social media has already exerted an unparalleled ability to foster community organization and political participation.  In 2008, President Obama utilized numerous social media feeds to mobilize traditionally apathetic populations to secure the presidency.  More recently, 2011 saw the rise of the momentous Arab Spring.  Social media and Internet access provided previously suppressed populations the voice to overthrow entrenched, autocratic regimes.  From a political standpoint, this accomplishment was no easy feat!

And social media’s communicative power is not limited to traditionally political fields.  Twitter specifically provides an open, horizontal environment in which any user can be heard.  This open invitation to communicate is what has powered the success of so many of #140Cuse’s speakers.  Amanda Hite’s (@sexythinker) empowering invitation to #BeTheChange would not be possible without this leveled playing field.

The Threat of an Echo Chamber

Nevertheless, as social media continues to mature, we must make a distinction—there is a difference between being democratic and aiding in democracy.  Social media has proved a superb aide on countless occasions, but how democratic are the twitterfeeds really?  In his highly respected examination of Internet structure, The Myth of Digital Democracy (2009), political scientist Matthew Hindman challenges traditional notions of open Internet communications.  His findings run contrary to what we would like to believe: a few, large forces dominate communication trends on the Internet.  Moreover, the Internet has produced an “echo chamber” effect, in which sites only link and discuss with those that purport similar viewpoints.

The echo chamber poses a distinct threat to the democratic potential of social media.  The very essence of democracy is a balanced consideration of multiple viewpoints, coalescing into an informed decision.  Currently, the structure of the Internet does not lend well to this desired balance.  Many, including Hindman himself, have attributed today’s harsh partisan environment to an increasingly polarized information set.  Dana Radcliffe of Cornell University recently discussed this “grim irony,” that increased communicative ability can limit democracy.  In the eyes of Radcliffe, effective use of social media organizes a bombardment of similar, non-diverse messages.  The result: a public more heavily informed than ever, but only by one side of a specific issue.

Room for Potential: The Fight is Not Over!

The echo chamber is not democratic.  It may aide in the democratic process, but it only produces destructively unbalanced participants.  But, social media is young, vibrant, and evolving.  Democratic potential exists.  I want to truly see the online democracy that #140Cuse’s outstanding speakers so enthusiastically purported. And it can happen.  We need to open our ears and connect with diverging viewpoints.  The opposition must be acknowledged.  On your Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc., make sure you are connecting with those who oppose your own ideas.  True democratic growth comes from this acknowledgement.

Recent data indicates that through social media, it has “proven difficult to sustain political interest and activism online.”  Through a more open, democratic process, we can reverse this trend.  Social media gives us all a voice, and we should embrace that potential whole-heartedly.  I realize this can all seem idealistic, but this idealism is what will power true change.  Let us know if/how you see this democratic potential coming to fruition in the comments section below.  Share your experiences.  Social media, I see true democratic potential in you, and I want to see that potential fully realized as soon as possible!

Billy Ceskavich

Billy is an Engagement Fellow and Masters candidate in the iSchool's Information Management program. He's an avid fan of consumer technology and the startup space, having worked in the industry both in Syracuse and Silicon Valley. He's active on Twitter (@ceskavich) or can be contacted directly via email (bceskavich@gmail.com).

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