Published On: Wed, Dec 12th, 2012

Who benefits from our increased social fragmentation?

Cable television and satellite radio stations have been praised for providing greater choice and criticised for the fragmentation of our societies.  New social media apps and websites allow this choice/fragmentation to reach new levels.  History Future Now briefly looks back at how this developed and then asks a question: how does this affect our democracies?

The history of how the radio and then television became widespread and then commercialised is fascinating.  In the US it was always commercial, paid for by advertising.  In the UK, private radio stations were gradually subsumed into one national, British, broadcasting corporation which was independently run, but paid for not through advertising, but by the state.  In the US, television evolved into three major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS plus a public (state) funded broadcasting service, PBS. In the UK, the BBC evolved into a number of sub channels, a semi commercial channel, ITV, was added and then a more commercial channel, Channel 4 added later.  What all of these channels had in common was that they were national channels, focused on a broad section of society.  They needed to be politically neutral and to reflect and amplify mainstream social norms and values.

Cable television and satellite television changed this dynamic, resulting in an explosion of channels that evolved to fill the very specific needs, tastes and viewing habits of individuals, who could then be sold to advertisers in easy to target demographic niches.  News, which had been hereto rather fact based, with the occasional opinion piece, was repackaged as entertainment with highly opinionated news heads using cable news to push a particular political angle.  All of this is not new, and has been written about before.

What is even more interesting is how social media is taking this process towards personalised news to a new, extreme, level. It started years ago with services such as Google Alerts, which would send you a list of news stories every day or hour (depending on your needs) about a particular subject that interested you. But this was, in effect, a crude way of searching for specific terms on a specific schedule. Many people never go round to updating their preferences and would have articles over which they no longer had any interest hitting their email inboxes.

Social media sites such as Stumble Upon, Reddit, Flipboard and Facebook, however, are making it even easier for you to find stories that “people like you” like to read. The more you read a certain type of article the more frequently that kind of article will appear in your Stumble Upon or Flipboard selection.  This is better than the Google Alerts approach as it does not require you to enter a specific search term – you self select to receive articles that will interest you more than anything else.  If you are particularly interested in 18th century crochet patterns, for example, this is perfect and you can read about the general subject ad infinitum.  Equally, if you are politically inclined to think that gay marriage is good, (or bad) or that higher taxes for the rich is good (or bad), you will be fed articles that  support that particular view.

So what impact does this have on democracy?  There are clearly benefits to this great fragmentation.  For one, your particular interest can be sated by programming that addresses issues that really concern or interest you.  You suddenly realise that you are not alone and may feel more confident so that, backed by numbers of like minded people, you push for your particular agenda onto wider society.

However, your particular views are amplified in an echo chamber of like minded thoughts. These  new tools reduce the chance that you will hear about opposing arguments for a particular issue: and, if you do hear about the issue, they are likely to have been pre filtered through this system so that the views of people who hold different beliefs dont just appear to be wrong, but puzzling. How can people have such odd, crazy views, you will ask yourself.  Since the views appear so different to the ones that you hold, the holders of these views must be either intellectually retarded, at best, or simply evil, at worst.

In the US, this divergence of opinions has reached such levels that it impedes the proper functioning of civil society.  The only time that one group hears the opinions of other groups is during elections for political office.  There is a lot of shouting, and very little listening.

Arguably, there are now so many interest groups that society has been fragmented to such an extreme that it is hard to achieve any form of broad consensus on matters that affect everyone.  It is also unlikely that your particular interest will be further advanced as you dont have enough broad political support to push your agenda, resulting in frustration.

So who does benefit from this fragmentation?

The Romans had a maxim of divide et impera – divide and rule.  They applied it to territories that they had conquered, splitting the lands into smaller parts with separate leaders, who would squabble amongst themselves.

In our society that is increasingly divided, someone is benefiting from this chaos.



History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

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