Wednesday, 14 November 2012

That we may apply our Tweets unto Wisdom

As the Psalmist nearly put it, "Teach us, O Lord, to number our days, that we may apply our tweets unto wisdom."

It was a comment made by Lord (formerly "Sits in David Owen's Pocket Oh David") Steel that made me sit up and notice. He referred on Any Questions the other day to "the people that run the internet." It reminded me of when Burton came back fuming from a Quiz Night. He'd challenged an answer - something to do with the guage of a railway line in South Devon in the 1870s, if I remember rightly - and had been told "I got it off the Internet, so you'll have to take it up with them."

1,000 years ago, if you wanted news, I guess you kind of got it two ways. You could wander to the village spring, or have a chat with your fellow peasants at church, and you got local news. "Local" in those days being properly local - not ITV-local where people assume Husborne Crawley is local to Ipswich and King's Lynn, and yet somehow not to London or Buckingham.

And then there was the "national" news. And that would normally arrive at church as well, as the powers-that-were would use the only national network of vaguely literate people to pass on what people wanted to hear. Or there might be stern words from the local Robber-Baron regarding the penalty for poaching on his land (death), nicking his crops when hungry (death) or looking at him in a funny way (death - yeah, they had no imagination, those Robber-Barons.)

And then with the printing press there was some degree of democratization. More people could read, and there was more to read. In London this combined with enough people to print broadsheets, often quite seditious, and the Press started. But as early-modern turned into late-modern,and railways could make the Press truly national, the power of the Press centralised. Instead of your local Robber-Baron you got your Press Baron. Instead of the Pope or the King telling you what to do, it was the Times or the Telegraph or, lately, Polly Toynbee.

But there's a degree to which that's now been smashed up. The importance of a story - even just 20 or 30 years ago - was dependent on the degree to which the newspaper or TV channel aware of it wanted to push it. And the Press, for all its faults, was aware of the concept of "journalistic standards". It may not always have kept them, but it knew they existed.

But now the world is all Interwebby-interconnected. The worth of a web page, a tweet or a blogpost is not determined in this world by the pocket-depth of a proprieter, or even by its standards of truthfulness, fairness or loveliness. Its worth is determined - either in the heart of the Google algorithm or through the hive-minding of Social Media - by the weight of links.

The more links you have, the greater your power. Get retweeted a million times and you could be claiming that the City of Manchester is entirely populated by squid.* The number of your links will be all-powerful. And what drives the number of links (or RT's) you get? Basically, how interesting you are - not how truthful.
And so total falsehoods about people can hit the national news, because the power of the Internet has made it so. A link in a timeline leads to a tasty morsel of gossip (Prv 18:8) and the RT is sure to follow.

I'll tell you how seductive this is. I once received a chain-letter from a fundamentalist friend, complaining about a blasphemous show (not Springer) that was touring the country and demanding that I (a) complain about it and (b) pass on the email. You may be assured that I would have done neither - even if the show had actually been touring (it wasn't). And the show wasn't even blasphemous when it had been put on.

Naturally I did what any good Christian would have done. I went round my friend's house and smashed up his router to stop him doing that sort of thing again. But the genie was out of the bottle. All his mates were now in their turn getting over-excited, and then passing the story. When I told my friend the story was untrue, he said he would probably have passed it on anyway. To warn people about this kind of show.
People - if a story's worth is measured by its links, RTs and Facebook Likes - think what you're giving weight to. If a story is libellous, cruel or downright wrong - just by linking to it you're giving it extra value.

You may think it's interesting. You may think others may think so. You may think I'm trying to interfere with the Natural Law of the Net. But we become what we tweet. If your timeline is full of gossip, falsehood and arguing - then that is who you are. If you link to an untrue allegation, you're adding to its power - even if you don't agree with it.

It may sound a bit pious, it may be a bit rich, coming from me. But try and link to something true, something valuable, something constructive. Try and build up, not constantly break down - even though the latter can be easier and more popular.The Net holds real shabby behaviour to account, quite often. It gives people a real voice, where their opinions can be weighed on their value not on the power of the person holding it. But whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure.... you know it makes sense.

*Citeh-supporting squid, of course. Utd-supporting squid all live in Surrey.

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