J.M. Berger writes: Social networks offer an incredible tool for tapping into the collective unconscious, a virtual Jungian arena in which competition might be expected to amplify the critical values and anxieties of millions of people in real time.
In early 2015, these critical issues included the ambiguous color of a random dress, the so-called Islamic State, and llamas — in that order.
How did we get here?
The answer to this question is, predictably, complex. Divining the mood of the masses has always been a tricky business. Prior to the rise of democracy, there were few consistent tools for this purpose, aside from counting how many pitchforks and torches the peasants were waving outside the gates. The vote became one way to quantify citizen priorities. But in practice, democracy is reductive. A finite number of candidates run for a finite number of offices, and the winners infer what their constituents want and need.
The explosion of affordable communications technologies allowed such inferences to become more accurate over time. Still, at every stage, reductionist influences kept whittling and shaping the raw data of public opinion. Pollsters decided what to ask and how to phrase the questions. Politicians decided which issues to exploit. News editors and producers made judgment calls about what was newsworthy.
Social media has introduced a new and profound layer of complication to how we listen to the voice of the masses. The technology has replaced the reductionism of the old world with a bafflingly dense ecosystem of echo and amplification. [Continue reading…]