OPINION26 November 2020

Power shapes our view of social networks

Opinion Technology Trends

Social media can amplify those whose voices have historically not been heard, and researchers should listen, says Hanna Chalmers.

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Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt recently described social networks as serving as “amplifiers for idiots and crazy people”. This comment marked the apex of a growing concern, panic even, about the damaging effects of social media on culture and society – particularly in relation to the most recent elections in the UK and the US, and of course, around the pandemic and the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news. 

But alongside really valid and important questions about how we control misinformation, or how algorithmic tendencies to harden our belief systems, there is something else present in the way in which social media is often talked about.  

Too often, there is also snobbery and elitism – worse, a tendency to diminish, suppress and even ridicule, the voices of people who prior to social media were rarely heard.  

I’ve just finished a research study which involved interviewing YouTubers from around the UK and US. It made me reassess YouTube, but also more broadly, reflect on recent events and the role of social media in them. YouTube is an incubator for talent, entrepreneurialism and creativity that is accessible to all. I met the most impressive young people innovating, making stuff and getting an audience. They were creating new career paths and sharing skills in all kinds of different ways with the world.  

But if you’ve already ‘made it’ or you’re lucky enough to not need a platform to help create or build an audience, why would you even notice the power that it has in amplifying positive voices and creativity?

In much the same way, it’s easy as a powerful, educated, middle-class professional to see very little positive in Facebook or Instagram. If your voice is already heard in mainstream media, if you’re already ‘represented’, what do you actually get out of either platform?

This lens of experience and perspective leads the mainstream, the voices of authority, to only see or hear the aspects of social media which are seen as problematic – namely destabilising or challenging the status quo.  

In the Netflix programme ‘The Social Dilemma’, we saw powerful Silicon Valley execs queue up to catastrophise around how damaging social media was to the very fabric of society – undermining democracy and leading to a hardening of views.  

But what does destabilisation actually mean?  

The reality is that a lot of the issues which are seen to be having a destabilising effect, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Me Too – are about the voiceless or traditionally powerless demanding equality. 

It is in fact, a remarkable achievement of social media to enable all these different voices, less heard, so often excluded from the national conversation, to have come together with such agency, to share experiences across geographies and cultures – and demand their experiences are heard, acknowledged and addressed.  

On Instagram, as I’ve written about before, incredible support networks for new mums and women returning to work have flourished over the last decade. Jenny Scott of Mothers Meeting was a true pioneer when she started posting on the social network nearly a decade ago about redefining the culture of motherhood on her own terms.  She was one of the first, and it sparked a movement of millions of mothers who want to do motherhood differently. 

These voices ‘sound’ different to the ones we are used to hearing – you might not like the language of affirmations, body positivity, meme culture or whatever – but they’re really about the flourishing of different voices. And too often these voices are still ‘hushed’ or even ‘cancelled’If we really think about it, these criticisms are often about not sounding like the voices we are used to hearing.

For groups traditionally sidelined from mainstream media, or ignored, social media has given them a voice, and an opportunity to unify and make their presence felt. This has accelerated the representation of ‘othered’ voices in the mainstream. Look at the reaction to the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad. Advertisers must reflect our ethnically diverse society – but there are, inevitably, going to be some who feel alienated and resistant to change.  

As researchers, we must listen, and not turn away from, the voices that have emerged as a direct consequence of social media. While I’m not ready to forgive YouTube for serving my eleven-year-old boy Jordan Peterson videos, I am ready to acknowledge, listen and appreciate the power of social networks in making new voices heard. 

Bring it on.

Hanna Chalmers is founder of The Culture Studio