The Myth Of Social Media “Democratising” Authority

Today while on Twitter (which I do spend too much time on), I came across a post by Katelyn Beaty. Here is what she said:

“When pastors decry the ills of social media–of which there are many–by this point I do wonder if it’s to discredit future concerns about their own leadership or community. Those with the most institutional authority are threatened by the democratization of authority here.”

Katelyn Beaty on Twitter

As both a pastor (a term I don’t quite like as it’s often too broad) and a media critic, I thought this was worth expanding on. She might have a point, but on the other hand, I think it’s worth noting that social media does not democratise authority. It used to do it better at one time, but that has changed. I will highlight why I think this is the case.

Authority has a lot to do with information

It would be good to quickly define some terms. “Authority” often has a lot to do with who has the information and how they use that information to influence, particularly when we’re talking about content and its distribution, i.e. social media. The word “authority” and “author” share the same root – meaning to “invent” and “promote”.

The question then to ask: does social media actually democratise information? No, it doesn’t. And by implication, it does not democratise authority.

Social media is mainly a popularity contest

“If you can not write well, you can not think well, and if you can not think well, others will do your thinking for you.”

George Orwell

George Orwell wrote the above words in 1984, but yet it doesn’t exactly prove true in social media. With social media, you don’t really gain a following by writing well, but generally through the following actions:

  1. Posting a lot (you have about a 15 minute window period to get peoples’ attention on Twitter before you disappear from their feed. This article recommends posting 15 – 23 tweets a day.)
  2. Posting loudly – in other words, having a strong opinion on something. It may seem like the place to think out loud, but the best way to grow an audience is to engage in some kind of controversy.

In other words, those who talk the most and the loudest generally get the most engagement on social media. This is not always the case, but it does appear to be an observable rule.

This means that social media has pretty much been geared for extraverts, most of the time.

I present these basic facts to simply showcase that:

i. Thoughtful, considered personal opinions do not get much engagement. There is no way you can present a “thoughtful” opinion on everything, nor is it possible to present thoughtful, considered opinions 23 times a day. This means that the authority you may have in an area of expertise, for example, is greatly limited by its quality. In other words, you lose reach if you try and create better quality, thoughtful posts, diminishing how you are perceived on social media as an authority.

ii. Your authority is limited by your pocket. It may be possible to circumvent the issue of quality and still maintaining reach with just good planning and making use of tools that help you post regularly (automating posts, etc.). If you are running an organisation or publication of some kind, be it a personal blog or an agency or something more collaborative, you will be aiming for this ideal. However, “authority” on social media is limited by your pocket. Those who have the money to invest in it can increase their “authority”.

Of course, to have authority and influence has always cost money. You get more authority with an education in some cultures (that usually costs). To publish, you’ve always had to pay in some way. The point is to note that social media is not free from the usual costs involved in days gone by. The “platform” may be free, but to use it efficiently you have to invest in many ways. This isn’t necessarily an issue for me but does begin to break down the myth of just how much social media truly democratises authority.

iii. Your authority is limited by your geography. This may seem like an odd thing to say (isn’t it supposed to be that we all “have a voice?”) but it has been my observation that, as a South African, Americans are not that interested in what I have to say. I can’t blame anyone for that, the context is different and Americans made social media anyway. The only way to circumvent this is usually to be an organisation or to make American issues your issue (and subscribe to an American worldview). (Yes, terrorist groups that aren’t American have a following on Twitter, but that is an organisation with a very particular opinon and the reason they have a following on Twitter is more complicated than what I’m presenting here.)

iv. Your authority is limited by your already-established authority. Blue checkmarks get more engagement. This means that, in a lot of cases, what you do in IRL matters – and gets you more engagement on social media. Blue checkmarks don’t always matter, but those seem to be rare cases when you consider the numbers. Therefore, if you already have a voice, your voice is simply amplified on social media. In some cases not, but in most cases, yes.

These simple factors – which could be expanded upon – already showcase that social media does not democratise authority. Thoughtful opinion is not particularly encouraged. In the beginning days (I was an early adopter) the simple algorithms of social media certainly presented an opportunity and the possibility of authority being democratised. Now, however, social media rewards you for basically talking a lot and talking loudly, and putting money into that process. This is simply the commodifying of speech not the democratising of it. It is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, why social media functions more like a publication than a “platform” in my opinion – and, like with publications, it is increasingly having to implement editorial processes to sort out its massive disinformation and outrage problem. That, then, like as always, means that only certain voices are increasingly being heard.

The internet has the capability of democratising authority, but as long as tech companies like Google, Amazon etc. look to centralise the internet through their channels, we will lose this. The internet needs to stay decentralised. I would say, perhaps right now, podcasts are the only real platform where a certain amount of democratisation exists. But with Spotify and Amazon increasingly moving into that space, and even with changes Apple are making, podcasts are going the same way social media has, blogs have, and everything else that made the decentralised internet an interesting place.

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