Monday, January 6, 2020

Facebook and Radio

Radio was the Internet of its day, and came with similar dire predictions.

I mentioned before, just once or twice in this blog, how the media influences your brain.  Not "the mainstream media" or some sort of conspiracy theory, but all media, in all forms, all of the time.  And you can't get away from it either.   They put televisions in elevators now, and even on the gas pump. Go to any casual restaurant, and odds are, there are five or more televisions over the bar.   The airport is loaded with them.  Whether you like it or not, they fling these messages at you, 24 hours a day.

And believe it or not, some people pay for the privilege of watching television for four or more hours a day.  They pay to sit immobile on a couch and be marketed to.   Amazing, ain't it?

People often ask me how I am aware of the contestants on America's Funniest Dancing Chefs Home Flipping Compeition Real Life, and the answer is, you can't get away from this shit.   And quite frankly, if you watch a few minutes of television a month, in a bar, restaurant, or even at the gas pump, you are pretty much all caught up on who won the dancing or warbling competition, or who the latest breakout viral star is, or what celebrity is sleeping with who.   Even if you could avoid all television, there is still the radio, the newspapers, and the internet - all gleefully reporting what is going on, so you are aware of this shit, whether you like it or not.

So, like it or not, I am forced to learn about Bruce Jenner's sex change operation and his family's travails, as the media breathlessly reports all of this trash as if we are interested - and apparently a lot of people are interested which tells you a lot about people.

There is a lot of hang-wringing going on about the Internet these days - people are spreading false information on Facebook and Twitter!   Of course, the largest source of misinformation on Twitter comes from you-know-who - and I don't mean Putin.   Yes, disinformation isn't limited to Russia's Internet Research Agency - it comes from the White House where "alternative facts" are the order of the day.

People worry about this - elections are being corrupted!   People are misinformed!   Children are not getting their inoculations!   What will we do?  Well, those kids will get sick and die, and the kids whose parents were smart enough not to believe a Facebook page will live.  And Darwin will cull the herd, so to speak.   Tragic, I know, but the same was true for parents who didn't put their kids in car seats or even put on their seatbelts - which today is illegal.   A lot of bad shit happens in the world, you can only worry about so much of it.   And besides, when you pay attention to "anti-vaxxers" you are just giving them what they want - attention and lots of it.  They want to nail themselves to the cross and say the world is out to get them.   There is nothing more pathetic that someone who nails themselves to a cross and nobody notices.    So ignoring them is the best strategy.

But getting back to topic, is "social media" a threat to society?   Well, like television, I try to limit my contact as much as possible - or as much as society allows.  I am not on Facebook, or Twitter, or Linked-In or whatever.   But whether I am or not, I am aware of these things as the rest of the media gleefully reports what has "gone viral" overnight, or what the President Tweets or what some snarky person counter-tweeted, or who lost their job and career lately over some ill-advised Tweet.   Like television, you can't get away from this shit, even if you wanted to.

I am not too worried, though.   We've been down this road before, many a time, and our nation and our species has survived.   Each new form of media has its day in the sun - or its decade or two - and then we get used to them and move on.   And in each case, the media in question starts out one way, and turns another.   Let me explain.

In the early days of radio, you had to be quite the experimenter, even to just listen.

When radio was first invented - as I noted before - it was like a telephone.   If you were a radio hobbyist, you bought a radio "set" which was a receiver and a transmitter and you set up an antenna near your house.    You might invite friends over for a "radio party" and you'd all put on headsets and listen in to the static and whine, or perhaps transmit to someone else.   It was much as Ham radio is today - with people transmitting as well as receiving.    

Of course, Ham radio, today, is a little creepy - let's face it.  You see the guy in the 1985 Dodge Aries K-car with all the antennas on it and his Ham license plate and you have to wonder - is he talking to someone in Buenos Aries on that thing?   Is this the original texting-while-driving deal?   No offense to you Ham radio operators out there, but it is sort of a little weird.  And it is no wonder that far-right and far-left fringe political and religious types have taken their game to Ham radio.   Maybe Hannity will go there as well.

But it wasn't long before infant radio became "broad-casting" as we know it today.  A young Russian immigrant (what it is with the Russians?  First radio, now the Internet!) David Sarnoff, saw the potential in radio, not as a point-to-point communication medium, but as a means of mass-marketing.  He invented Broadcasting - where one single powerful transmitter would send signals to millions of passive receivers.

I mentioned before, how when radio was introduced, it wasn't long before fascist dictators came to power throughout the world.  Hitler and Mussolini knew about the power of mass-communication.  Even Roosevelt, who was not a dictator (unless you are some right-wing nutjob) knew how his "fireside chats" could manipulate public opinion in his favor.

And we have Mr. Sarnoff to thank for all of this.

The Internet - and computers in general - followed as similar model.   In the 1970's, if you wanted a "home computer" you got out your soldering iron and made it yourself, perhaps from a kit.  And when dial-up online forums were created, most of the people "going online" were fellow computer geeks.  As I noted before, in those early, unmoderated days of dial-up forums and the internet, there was no moderation or control.   People would get into flame wars over who was their favorite Star Trek character.  I suppose back in the early days of radio, they argued about their favorite H.G. Wells novel.  Geeks haven't changed much, have they?

But like so many other media before and since, it wasn't long before someone called for control over this new media - which some decried as "censorship".    There were standards of decency that some felt needed to be enforced.   Newspapers and magazines went through this - laws were passed making it illegal to send "indecent materials" through the mail.   The motion picture industry ended up censoring itself (after the early, heady days) due to pressure from the Catholic National League of Decency.    Radio and later, television, also succumbed to pressures, and were regulated by the FCC.  You couldn't say the "seven dirty words" on the air, and even today, broadcast television "bleeps" out naughty words, even as they've entered the everyday lexicon.

The Internet has gone through the same metamorphosis.   Commercial interests - the modern-day Sarnoffs - have seen that this point-to-point network could be turned into a top-down broadcasting model, by sending out messages to a large audience - and attaching advertisements to them, if the messages themselves are not in fact subliminal ads.

"But wait!" you say, "The internet is an interactive medium!  On Facebook, I can upload pictures and wall postings!  It isn't like a broadcast model!"   And to some extent, this may be true, but Facebook is, as I noted before, like playing a piano with only four keys - the number of variations of your input are limited - by design - and each reworking or new feature of Facebook is designed to make you more passive and more of a content consumer than a producer.

And we are seeing this across all forms of "social media" on the Internet.   Twitter has a lot of followers but few who actually create Tweets.   YouTube used to be people making their own videos, but lately - by design - it is morphing into a streaming channel.   Production values have improved and major YouTubers even make a living at quasi-professional videos (as opposed to crappy home movies like I make).

Over time, there have been more and more calls to police this new media.   Youtube recently introduced a "children's content" filter, and as a channel owner, I am required to list whether my videos are "kid friendly" - and select whether kids are watching when I search the site.   Parents complained that their kids were finding inappropriate content online.   Same shit, different day - and the same pattern of the wild-west free-for-all, followed by self-censorship to preserve the vast money-making operation.

Today, we hear about odious political views, such as anti-antisemitism and Nazism being espoused online.  And slowly - ever so slowly - the "social media" sites are reluctantly taking action to police these extremists.  It took radio a decade or more to finally take Father Coughlin off the air - due to his rabid antisemitism.  And I suspect that eventually Facebook will take similar action - particularly when the guy who runs it is named "Zuckerberg".   Once someone spray-paints a swastika on the wall of his mansion, he may get the point.

Of course, it is hard to police the Internet, due to its distributed structure.   But increasingly, the Internet, for most common people, is social media.   Most "ordinary" people I know access Facebook from their cell phone and spend a lot of time texting each other.  To them "online commerce" means Amazon - exclusively.   (More and more "free for all" forums try to emulate these "broadcasting" models.  eBay, once America's garage sale, has tried to emulate the Amazon model.  They make it easier for me to buy things online from mega-sellers, but make it harder for me to sell off my own junk.   Sarnoff would be proud.)

Odious content won't go away entirely, of course.  The Internet is vast and has many cubby-holes (welcome to mine!).     Radio was regulated by the FCC, and objectionable content removed from the airwaves (well most of it, anyway) - but you can still go on shortwave and listen to some Christian end-times nutjob blather on about the Bible, or some neo-Nazi broadcast his odious views.   There ain't a shortwave radio in my car, though.   You have to seek out that sort of nonsense.

And I think as "social media" matures, it will start policing itself, realizing that the almighty money train may be derailed from the tracks if they allow the party to go on, unmoderated.   Already we are seeing that advertisers can be shamed into removing their ads from odious content.  People call it "censorship" but it isn't - it is a corporation (which are people, doncha know!) exercising their free right of expression by not sponsoring objectionable content.

So, oddly enough, the commercialization of social media will end up being a moderating effect.   Advertising on Twitter will mean that advertisers will pressure Twitter not to have their ads chock-a-block with Presidential tweetstorms - at least in most cases.

All this nonsense about "election interference" and "fake news" and "urban legends" will eventually peter out.  Yes, there will always be idiots who believe whatever is convenient to them, or like the anti-vaxxers and basement Nazis, whatever garners them attention.   But once they lose their platform and people stop paying attention to them, they likely will move on with life.

Of course, how long this will take is anyone's guess.   It took the movies a couple of decades before they started self-censoring.   And it took a decade or two before radio went from two-way media to a one-way one.   Television, of course, was just radio with a lightbulb - the "talking lamp" as they called it - and was regulated from day one.  (Speaking of which, what is it with these YouTube channels where bloggers just stare into their laptops and talk for 20 minutes?   People actually watch this?  Can no one type anymore?).

The Internet - it make take a few more years, but already we are seeing calls for social media to be monitored and filtered - and yes, censored.    There will be a hue and cry over it, but in the long run, the people who are making millions, nay billions, over this, aren't going to allow their fortunes to be derailed by a few deranged individuals.

Well, let's hope, anyway.