Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Digital networks are a defacto way of our lives. We spend a large amount of time online, on these networks. Our decisions in the real world are formed by them. Our societies are being shaped and reshaped by information in these networks. Deeper still, our very lives and the most personal relationships are significantly governed by digital (social and otherwise) networks.
Prior to the coming of social networks, this role was largely played by television networks. Prior to that by radio and before that, print media and books. From the dawn of industrial revolution, there has been one dominant network that has played a formative role in societies.
That networks are important is a moot point. It does not need establishing. What’s important is to understand how democratisation of networks is important.
And by democratisation, I don’t mean ownership or structure of a single network. Instead I mean the availability of a wide variety of options in a type of network. As a consumer in a society, if a particular type of network is my only choice available, then that’s bad. That’s contrary to ideas of democracy and diversity.
Let’s take the example of radio. Imagine for a minute that the entire world had just one radio station. Starting from a locality (a city, or town) this radio station spiralled outwards and increased its network of influence. By some unique twist of technology or insight into human behaviour, it captured and locked audiences as it moved outwards. Infact, after a point it became such that audiences stretched to reach it, rather than it moving outwards. All programming had to suit it’s format and all content was of a type that this channel thought was suitable for its listeners.
Program creators would have no choice but to confirm to this, and beyond a point audiences wouldn’t know if they could enjoy or need alternative content or format. Every minute of airtime was owned, controlled and programmed by a single network. People either listened to it or never listened to the radio at all.
Luckily for us, this is far from reality. None of the networks in human history — radio , television, news — has been able to become a single dominant global network, squeezing out all others into meaningless existence or oblivion.
We have lived, learned and enjoyed a world of plurality and democracy of networks. Where multiple choices exist and where niche is valued and coveted. Until this day. This plurality of networks has failed miserably to keep up in the digital world.
A weird combination of corporate machinations, technology and user behaviour has brought us to a situation where in the digital world we now have only a few selct social networks — of which only one controls 80% of the attention span of 70% humans on this planet.
For the convenience of having all our friends and family at one place, listening into a single frequency, we have traded away our plurality. The web is no longer a democracy of multiple enriching voices and niche corners, that it was conceived to be. It’s now this one mega radio channel, making every one tune into it and dictating who will consume what and at what time.
We have forgotten our personal nuanced likes and dislikes, our varied choices and dulled our brains into one size fits all style of consumerism.
The fallout of such a thing is disastrous for everyone except the network owners. Convenience has a price. And the price in this case is monotony. The price is also the lack of high quality that comes out of competition.
Corporations run on the principle of maximum profit. And the maximum profit of a mass scale network is to increase consumption at any cost. To tune people into garbage if garbage is what begets more profit.
This has always been true — whether we talk of television networks or radio networks. Or even other media.
When there is a single network, the quality of its content invariably starts degrading due to the lack of competition. Luckily, this has been checked this far because television and radio networks lend themselves easily to be diversified and divided into many niches.
Segments emerged and each segment forced others within and outside the segment to do better. This pushed diversity and quality upwards and there was room for everyone — no matter what tastes, opinions or beliefs.
In today’s world unfortunately, this is no longer the case. We have only a select few social networks. They have managed to grow bigger with each passing year and have dominated an entire generations’ way of thinking, approach to innovation, intellectual capability amongst other things.
It is therefore little wonder that we haven’t seen any further disruption since 2004 — more than a decade — and no variation to our current approach to consuming ideas and information.
If you take a step back and look, you will realise how badly we are stuck in time inspite of all the innovation around AI, AR, VR and blockchain.
While these technologies have started bursting out of the labs world-wide, they are still in the stranglehold of the major social networks — who dictate the pace of adoption for these new tech.
The public at large still doesn’t really consume anything outside of content served up by these select networks, in the formats that they deem fit and timing that suits best to them.
Consequently, there is also a global decline in intellectual capability, languages and our ability of critical debate. We are being served fast-food information, because that sells well and because we are ok with it. It’s killing us, but we keep wanting more.
We are rapidly losing the very thing that the internet was supposed to give us — the ability to fundamentally change things and be as plural and as nunaced as possible , as many times as possible.
We cannot do this unless we change the way we look at social networks currently. We need to change our parameters of judging success of a network, and we need to recognise that it’s important for us to have variety.
We need to celebrate niche and small-scale. Not each social network has to be an unicorn. Glorifying Unicorns, as the only benchmark of success, is a trick that VCs and corporations have been playing succesfully for the past decade, to defeat innovation.
Unicorns don’t serve the public well. We don’t need one player for everyone. We need many players, big and small, catering to the many needs and different ways of social engagement and information consumtion.
We a thousand social networks — each unique and meant for a different kind of audience. We need to remember that net plurality is the other name of net neutrality.