The platform provided by SNs is a passive intermediary, but it is one that supersedes all other historical intermediaries that played the role of bringing communities together. Whereas groups of people would congregate at the water cooler or the mall, these groups tended to be small and less connected. There were multiple small groups congregating at water coolers and malls-as-town-squares across the world. One would not consider the mall as an intermediary, but it performed the function of bringing the community together. Modern SNs scale up the idea of the mall-as-town- square by bridging global communities, eliminating the smaller intermediary town-squares. A reunion of college classmates can be facilitated by Facebook without the intervention of a Reunion committee at the college level.
The discussion in this book pertains to connections at the tangible level. One could imagine connectivity as a layered cake, so that we are addressing only the icing on the top and the essential elements are in the cake below. As Sherry Turkle suggests, the connectedness we feel as a result of this technology is in a sense illusory, it is an “empathy machine.” The empathy that is present in face-to-face conversation is absent from virtual connection. Effective communication consists of both connection and conversation . Perhaps there are deeper layers of connectivity that address emotional aspects, beyond the economic and social ones.
The content on SM is provided by the users. However, there is additional content curated by algorithms developed by the platform, using personal preferences revealed by users. For example, the News Feed on Facebook, provides developing stories of interest to users with a given profile. Clearly, as users update their profiles with likes, their News Feed will also get updated. The trending topics box is another source of general news, although relatively minor on mobile devices. Therefore, the notion that the platform is a gatekeeper of news is misleading. By applying user information to the sorting and filtering of news, the platform acts as an ostensibly neutral curator. However, to the extent that the criteria for sorting are themselves decided by the platform, news can be tailored to various demographic groups on SM, violating the notion of strict objectivity.
More insidious is the feedback loop since user reaction to News Feed and trending topics impacts the algorithms, which are then tweaked so the revised News Feed falls in line with our new user profile. Algorithms are complex computer programs, created by programmers writing millions of lines of code, using data from economic and social connections. Machine learning, where computers create patterns from masses of data, allows the content to be updated. As we consume news and other content, our reaction to the News Feed and trending topics is mined by algorithms for patterns, which influence the content, which update our reactions, and so on. The public policy question here is how these patterns update content, an issue I return to in Chap. 8.