by Doctor Science
danah boyd just put up for comment the text of a presentation she did at SXSW on "The Power of Fear in Networked Publics". She argues that because the limiting resource on the Internet is attention, people online are ever-more-inclined to monger fear, that great attention-grabber. I disagree: it seems to me that, compared to old media (especially TV) the Internet is *less* fear-saturated and fear-prone. I think a lot of this has to do with the nature of authority.
Fear-mongerers leverage our willingness to pay attention to fearful stimuli in order to generate attention. A fearful newspaper headline captures people's attention. This draws people into paying attention to the newspaper as a whole, which is precisely the intention of headlines. Likewise, when TV anchors are spouting off fearful information, people are far less willing to turn the channel. Again, this is of interest to the television network.Although I agree with most of danah's premises, I think I disagree with her conclusion. I think the online world is less fearful than offline world, especially the offline world of TV.
With social media, the intersection is messier. There are certainly broadcast messages being communicated from far off, but the majority of attention-seeking takes place in
the world of user-generated content. This creates an ecosystem where hysteria isn't necessarily from on high, but, rather, all around us. Interestingly to me, fear on social media isn’t just employed by marketers, pundits, and politicians. It’s increasingly used by everyone. My work focuses on teen culture so I see a lot of this through that lens. I watch as parents use fear in an effort to get their kids to pay attention to them. I watch as teens use fear in order to get attention from their peers. Teens and parents both develop an acute sense for what will grab their interlocutors’ attention. Attention is indeed the currency of contemporary society. Hysteria is one element of this, whether it plays out as fear-mongering or simply drama. Many of the teen practices that adults deplore the most stem from the desire to capture attention in an attention economy. Yet, adults are by no means innocent of this. They too use fear to get attention.
Through social media, we're ramping up the attention economy. We are setting in motion new networks. We like to think of ourselves as disrupting power systems and, indeed, that’s what we were doing for a long time. But now, those in power are leveraging our tools to exert new forms of power. Fear is one of the tools that’s being used. People are finding ways to put fear into our systems.
Part of it is that I disagree with her premise that "We live in a culture of fear." I don't think we do, not generally. Yes, there are plenty of things to worry about -- and dystopias are quite popular -- but we're not more frightened than I remember people in general being in the 1960s or 70s, when I was growing up under the fear of nuclear war. I've also been reading bits of The Twilight Years by Richard Overy, about Britain between the wars and people's pervasive sense that they were seriously about to witness the collapse of civilization. By comparison, I'd call present-day levels of fear "not unusual" for human societies.
danah is correct, that the attention economy gives a strong incentive for fear-mongering, because fear is a natural attention-getter. But when I think of a "culture of fear" these days I think of people who watch a lot of TV. Compared to TV, the Internet produces a *less* fearful culture, it seems to me.
I've avoided getting news from TV for quite a few years. I stopped watching local news when the Megan Kanka case was current: it was in our local TV news area, Sprog the Elder was about Megan's age, and it was just too upsetting to get the constant non-update updates. I stopped watching national news on September 11, 2001 -- we already were well-connected to the Internet, and could get *plenty* anxious enough without TV's habit of replaying horrific images over and over and over.
When I encounter TV news these days, I find the constant hyping of how I should be afraid or angry about things to be basically unbearable. Fox News definitely seems worse than the other networks, going by what I see on TVs in public places, and I've heard from many friends who've seen their elderly relatives become more and more agitated, paranoid, and reactionary over the last 10 years or so though constant watching of Fox News. Leftist twitchy paranoia has also been seen in elderly MSNBC addicts, but there are fewer of them.
The quintessential way TV news gets your attention is with fear: "Are you getting cancer from your toothpaste/seatbelt/cat/own reflection?!? Details after the break" -- and then they cut to an ad. TV news (or other information source, including many daytime talk shows) uses fear to keep you in your seat through the ads. You have to be emotionally engaged to put up with the ads -- and exposing you to the ads is the whole point, that's what you're there for.
Information online doesn't work like that -- you don't have to be emotionally worked up to pay the price of your info, it's *there*. In McLuhan's terms, TV is much "hotter" than the Internet. This is especially the case because so much of the info on the 'net is in the form of text, which is an essentially cool medium.
The quintessential way the Internet gets your attention is with LOLcats.
Chains of fear can certainly get started on the Internet, but I think they tend to break more easily than they do offline. In the first place, there's Snopes: these days, it's really, really easy to get a handle on whether any given scary thing is likely to be a baseless rumor or not. Importantly, you stay in the same medium to do this: to check out something on TV, you have to turn away from the TV. To check out something online, you stay online.
In the second place, there's Google and Wikipedia. When you encounter a scary or shocking rumor online, you can start to check it immediately, to find out what it's based on and who believes it. There is *never* just one source, and if there is that's suspicious in and of itself.
Now, I often call Wikipedia "The Source of All Half-Knowledge", but I also think it represents a major epistemological revolution.
Jakob Nielsen's Law of the Internet User Experience is "Users spend most of their time on other sites." When it comes to knowledge, Wikipedia is the other site. Everyone goes there, for all kinds of information, so the way knowledge is presented on Wikipedia shapes how people think of knowledge in general, what they look for from information in general.
So, how is information presented on Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is blatantly unfinished and unstable. It's full of editorial remarks and warnings ["weasel words", "citation needed", "lacks inline citations", "said by whom?", "relies on a single source"]. Knowledge, as seen on Wikipedia, is not solid and immutable, nor does it stand alone. It relies on authorities, but it is not authoritative. It takes *work* to interpret -- it is, in McLuhan's terms, not just cool but ice-cold.
In a recent appearance on Chris Hayes, Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about television and the appearance of authority:
Writing and blogging is a learning experience for me. It's a back and forth between me and my audience, it might be a back and forth between me and other writers. I am taking in as much as I'm giving out.As several commenters on TNC's blog pointed out, the camera grants authority, which is amplified by the lack of true back-and-forth and self- and other-correction.
It's a little harder to do that on TV, to take in and give out in the same way. When I'm on my blog I'm not an authority. I'm a moderator, I'm talking -- but I have the right to be wrong, in a way that you don't necessarily have when you're on TV.
TV always seems more of an authority than the Internet, because there's only one opinion at a time, only one voice, one face. I also think a single face talking to you will naturally engage our human emotions strongly, including fear and respect. Text will never be as immediately gripping, it always has to be filtered and translated by your brain.
The Internet is intrinsically less authority-based than TV, just as Wikipedia is less authoritative than the Encyclopedia Britannica. And I think that makes the Internet intrinsically less fear-filled.
Fear and authoritarianism have a chicken-and-egg relationship. People with strong conservative or authoritarian bents are more fearful -- but it's not clear to me whether authoritarianism makes people more frightened, or whether frightened people cling to authorities, or whether authorities prefer to use fear as a tool, so authoritarians get into the habit of being frightened. All authoritarian leaders know that there's no better way to get people to go along with them and obey than fear: fear of outsiders, fear of danger, fear of change.
Regardless of chickenhood or egghood, the Internet, being less authority-centered, will be less fear-ridden, and being less fear-based, will be less authoritarian. I notice that most of danah's examples of fear on or about the Internet were kicked off by reports in "conventional" media: newspapers, TV.
There's also the fact that, online, *you* always have some control over your experience: you click the link (or don't), you play the video (or not), you're free at a moment's notice to click away to someplace else, to decide you mistrust a source or just plain lose interest. Because you're in control online, I wonder if you don't frighten as easily -- your emotional baseline is set at a more confident level.
Dear Mom & Dad & other people who may not catch the reference: my title refers to The Litany Against Fear, in Frank Herbert's Dune:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
edited: to reflect that "danah boyd" is her preferred orthography, not "Danah Boyd".