Early in the tech boom of the 1990s, there were terms like business to business (B2B), business to government (B2G), etc to refer to the electronic commerce possibilities of the Internet, and whatever. Recently, I saw for the first time Everyone to Everyone (E2E) as both a future goal and a characterization of the current peak of social media from the likes of Twitter and Facebook.
Within Twitter in particular there seems to be a leveling where strangers are answering each other’s tweets even though one is famous and the other is not. We are also inundated with twitter accounts from current events. The historical examples of twitter reports from the various uprisings in the middle east countries created the impression that twitter makes formal news gathering and reporting obsolete. The messages were immediate reports of events mere seconds old, and they were coming from thousands of different angles. We were experiencing news from everyone. I mean everyone, as in a consensus, as in unanimity.
Social media is certainly very popular. It is a source of staggering amounts of fresh content as individuals publish to the world their unfiltered thoughts or reactions. This is being fed by a promotion of the need for everyone to participate. For many, participation is not a reasonable option.
The broad impression of obligatory participation directly implies that everyone is participating. Certainly there are countless people participating. Evidence of the enormity of participation is our constantly seeing names we have never encountered before, each of which are following and are followed by yet more strangers. Everyone is within a few degrees of separation from our social networking circles.
E2E implies everyone. Each of us has direct access to anybody through a chain of connections starting from our immediate network of direct contacts.
We wouldn’t notice this at all unless there were discussions. Disagreements is what motivates us to generate content that then contributes to the common pool of messages. As we watch these conversations, we see alliances being built and rebuilt concerning particular issues. People who clearly agree on some issues will vehemently disagree on others. Certainly, a large incentive to create new content is to try to convince an ally on a different topic to become an ally on the current one.
Taken as a whole, all of these conversations give the impression of universality or at least its near-term inevitability. Soon everyone will be connected to everyone, opening whole new ways to relate as a global community.
I recall the news of recent uprisings in middle east, Ukraine, and Venezuela. I recall seeing impressive number of independent reports with instantly distributed cell-phone camera images of large crowds. From that flood of information, it is easy to conclude that the establishment is hopelessly outnumbered.
But time wears on and the establishment remains. Eventually we get the slower news that all of that earlier content came from a minority. Either the establishment still had majority support, or there were even more powerful minorities who were silent in the social media.
E2E is everyone to everyone where everyone is defined as people who have joined the social media space. Social media communities may address real world current events, but the communities are virtual worlds. The participants may in fact be physically present in the ongoing events, but they are not fully participating in those events. Instead, they are participating in the social media. It takes time to read other people’s accounts. It takes time to write or take photos for distribution. Time spent on the social media is not time spent participating in the events. The social media participant is living in a virtual reality of social media space while events play out in front of them. The majority of individuals in the everyone of E2E are at best spectators.
The impressive crowds of protests become less impressive when everyone in the crowd has an extended hand with a glow of a phone camera screen in front of them. The majority of the crowd isn’t protesting. They are reporters.
Everyone to Everyone is a world inhabited only by reporters.
This mirrors what I see in legacy news media where journalists appear to be talking among each other, especially in commentaries, but often not so subtly in reports that are supposed to be objective. Their writing is partly motivated by a desire to send a message to their counterparts in other parts of the journalism profession. This subdued subculture of journalism is very obvious in the popular social media. People talking to each other about what is happening among third parties. The third party actors are too busy making things happen to be participating in the conversation.
Seeing the world through the lens of E2E is very misleading. The biggest risk is to mistake the social media consensus as a formidable majority. The social media participants are passive observers of the events. In addition, they are unlikely to be anything but passive observers in the future. The work necessary to make the change and especially to implement the new changes will be done by the people who are not included in the everyone of E2E.
The active players are outside of everyone. There is no number of degrees of social media separation to connect to these active players because these active players are not absorbed in the social media virtual world.
From my limited understanding of what is going on in Ukraine, for example, what was clearly a very effective protest nonetheless appears to have involved only a minority of the population. It appears that a majority were ambivalent or in opposition to the protests. Judging from the images of several months ago, it would seem inevitable that the protest-created government would be effective in governing the land. To their credit, they appear to be doing better than what happened in places like Egypt, but the government is struggling from opposition and apathy that was not expected from the earlier flood of social-media reporting of the protests.
In early posts, I described a concept that a government needs a super-majority consent to be governed by a smaller majority or even the largest minority. In such a government, the overruled minority continues to consent to be governed. I defined a super-majority in such a way that any protesting minority will not be able to overwhelm those who consent to the government. Consent is different from agreement. People may disagree, and disagree strongly, but still consent to being governed. One of my earlier posts suggested one motivation for granting consent was the near term promise that the losing side will get their turn to govern: a time when they can say “now it is our turn”. My point here is that opposition does not necessarily translate to support for replacing a government: the opposition may still grant its consent to be governed.
The social media virtual world is useless as a measure of this consent. Consent can only be measured by the people active either in supporting the government or protesting it. The social media degrees of separation are the spectators. The social media participants often envision themselves as contributing by somehow enlisting global support that may provide material assistance. While they succeed in building global awareness, that awareness rarely translates into material assistance. I feel badly for their disappointment. The hard work needs to be done locally and they are too busy on social media to lend their hand.
Social media connections are largely irrelevant to the progress of events. Active participation involves making things happen. The Ukraine Euromaidan protests succeeded by the relative minority who were laboring at the barricades or providing supplies to those who were there. These participants were too busy or exhausted to spend much time on the social media’s virtual world. They did exploit social media for communications, but this was for very practical matters of making arrangements for the next event. Outside of the morale boost of being seen in international news, they were not well served by the cheering of the various spectators on either side.
My background in data science and simulation biases my interpretation of social networks or social media. From a data science perspective, everything about social networks is just data. Data is historical data and historical data is an unreliable witness of events of the past. The instant tweets, shared photos, or blog accounts give the impression of reality, but it is still just data that deserves the same suspicion and scrutiny as any other data. If we are interested in the real world, we need to recognize the limitations of data. Having data is a poor substitute for being present at the events.
In terms of my simulation background, I can’t help but to see the social network world as a virtual world, an alternative reality. Simulations are useful as they can generate predictions. Virtual worlds of social networks for example can predict who may become a friend in real life. My background in simulations is in its use to make decisions. Social network simulations can support the decision of making new friends. But just as in decision-making, the real-world benefit comes from a decision that involves a real life face to face friendship, not a continuation of a virtual one.
Social networking has a practical value only when it is tied to making things happen in the real world. When I hear E2E or similar concepts, I see a satisfaction of making things happen in the virtual world: it is sufficient for the spectators to hear each others’ cheers and jeers.
I see hints that there could be a separate economy of a virtual world. Through various means, virtual goods and services are being exchanged in the social network virtual world. Some of these may be translated to physical goods in the form of sharing of property (ride sharing, sharing overnight accommodations, etc), or in the form of cash from advertisements. At least I have heard that there are people who are comfortable living a predominantly virtual existence.
Even in this virtual world, the concept of E2E is likely to be impossible. Although there are huge networks of people through various degrees of separation, ultimately there will be barriers. For example, LinkedIn will show a graph showing that there is a person unknown to me but known to one of my contacts who can introduce me to another person. Theoretically this is a third degree of separation. However, in practice that introduction may be impossible. Part of the bargain of being a friend is to be selective about who to introduce. In the example of the professional circles of LinkedIn it is very obvious where there are barriers: there are relationships you can not reach by following the graph of connections.
For example, a recruiter is not interested in endless low quality introductions. If a recruiter is looking for someone who is well versed in the latest computer technology, he is not interested in being introduced to a very clever guy who is very good at repairing gas powered lawn mowers.
This is similar to the kind of barriers that exist in the larger social media world. Already there are clear boundaries between communities where the majority of participants has no interest at all in communicating to anyone outside of their community. This is especially true in politics that theoretically would be best served by the ideals of E2E to enable better communication. The social network communities may be large but it is isolated. For many in these communities it is their safe place and they’d like to keep it that way.
In my opinion the result of E2E is to build arbitrary communities that span the globe but these communities are individually isolated. The analogy is a reversion to a tribal mentality where the tribes mutually hate each other. Only this time, the tribes are globally distributed. To me, this is a scary prospect and yet it seems inevitable. The silver lining is that these are virtual tribes who exist only in an irrelevant virtual world. They can be avoided by living in the real world.
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