Douglas Rushkoff: The trivialisation of news through social media

Via Douglas Rushkoff:

(received via email)

“I have become fascinated and concerned by the efforts of social media companies to become news services. Facebook, Twitter, and even Snapchat are now competing to be the way we find news stories. Is that because these companies are so very committed to making sure their users are informed? Does that have anything to do with the mandate (such as it is) of social media platforms?

It’s one thing for Twitter and Facebook to do this. It’s necessarily trivializing and sensational, but at least the things on Facebook and Twitter – for better and for worse – become part of the record. The stuff on Snapchat disappears altogether.

The entire media empire Snapchat is building is based on ephemerality. Everything is fleeting, intentionally. Nothing sticks. That’s precisely what Snapchat was for: so that you could take photos or write messages, send them, and have them disappear. That’s the bias of these media platforms.

The original invention of text did the opposite. With text, we got to write down history (that’s when “history” as we know it, began). We also got accountability: some of the very first documents ever written are contracts. Text let us write stuff down now that we could be held to account for in the future. Disappearing text and pictures dissolves our accountability.

So socially, what does it mean when people are no longer held to account for anything? We get revisionist history for everything: that happened, no it didn’t, yes it did but it happened like this… What does it mean for a generation to grow up in world where everything they write simply disappears?

With its news service features, Snapchat isn’t just the Snapchat app – it’s the beach head for an entire media conglomerate. An entire media universe based on that disappearing act – that ephemeral value system. So the latest thing – launched in September – is a feature called “Discover”. That’s Snapchat’s way of giving people the news. You tap a little button, pick a ‘channel’ and they give you ten newsy headlines. But they’re not like headlines – they’re more like Chat Routlette for the news. They give you the headline and you swipe one way to read it, and another way to reject it. And if you just reject it, it’s, like, gone.

War in Iran? Next. Global Warming? Next. Kardashian’s kid showing picture of her boyfriend’s bulge? Let’s see!

That’s the icky part that needs looking at. The silly, ephemeral, temporary, disappearing quality of Snapchat may be appropriate for middle schoolers passing notes about their crushes or teachers they hate. But now that same platform is trying to become the way people relate to things that actually matter. And it’s giving them the power to see real issues – life or death stuff – as dismissible, disposable, fleeting, and inconsequential.

If you bought the NYTimes and they had “War!” on the front page, you could turn the page, sure. But it’s still there in physical space, kind of nagging at you. You put the paper down and that headline is still staring at you.

The new frictionless news space of Snapchat is great for advertisers, because the reader never has to think about anything difficult; the mind is kept in the Muzak state. Eyes ogling Kardashian booty are perfect eyes for the advertiser.

Or think of it this way: the pitch is that thanks to technology, users only get the news they want. Cool! Except what if the news that’s happening in the real world is news we don’t want? We swipe it away on the phone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. No, they won’t show that kind of story to us again.

But, unlike the photo of the topless girl in the cafeteria, it hasn’t really disappeared. The starving babies, or whatever news you don’t want to look at. That’s not the way news works, or should.”

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