Writing in The Social Interface last year, I supposed that mainstream media's following of Facebook and Twitter rather than synthetic worlds came down to the numbers involved: the former simply have many more users than any single instance of the latter. A second possible explanation occurred to me after reading Wagner James Au's The Making of Second Life (2008) recently. The book was written at around the time that I heard all those stories of entrepreneurs and companies opening for business in Second Life, and Chapter 10 has a bit to say about their fates.
Au records that Second Life users largely ignored the corporate spaces, preferring to remain in the areas created by traditional non-corporate Second Life users. The owners of these spaces, one might therefore suppose, have little incentive to talk about Second Life in their own spaces. Meanwhile, many corporations have thousands of Facebook "likes" and Twitter followers, so why wouldn't they prefer to talk about those? Could it be that Facebook and Twitter's visibility comes about because they turned out to better homes for major media corporations, or at least because their user community was more welcoming to said corporations than the user community of Second Life?
Off-hand, I can't think of any way to test such an hypothesis — certainly not from the armchair in which I write this. But I did happen across a couple of observations consistent with it.
Firstly, I recalled my own recent observations about very large "communities": as nice as it sounds for everyone to participate with everyone else, it just isn't possible to do it. We therefore conduct our public business through large institutions, even if few people have much affection for them. Facebook provided a home where Second Life did not, so there the intitutions are and so is everyone else but a few corporation-averse hold-outs.
Secondly, The Register's Richard Chirgwin drew readers' attention to some marketers' lament that up to 80% of sharing of links and articles occurs via e-mail and text messaging, which marketers have no means of tracking. So the marketers would certainly prefer it if we were all on Facebook. At least one of the marketers involved seems to be so impressed with Facebook et al. that Business Review Weekly quotes her as saying that "dark social [e-mail] is a very interesting development" even though, as Chirgwin observes, people of sufficient age have been using e-mail and text messaging for at least a decade before anyone had heard of what we now call a "social network".
For many of us, I'm sure that getting away with 80% of our communications unmonitored by marketers is a sign of hope. And we can remind ourselves that we aren't defined solely by our profiles in major media outlets: Second Lives and e-mails aren't failures just because they don't enjoy the media profile of Facebook or Google, any more than my local baker is a failure because he only sells bread to people in my suburb. If Second Life and World of Warcraft entertain millions of people and keep their operators in business, why worry if some other corporation isn't paying much attention to them?
I recently read Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble (2011), which discusses the potential for highly-personalised news feeds and search results to trap users in a "filter bubble" from which they can see only what news and results support their existing world-view. Cass Sunstein actually postulated that this might happen some time ago in Republic.com (2002), but Pariser updates the argument for ten years of advances in recommendation and personalisation technology.
By coincidence, my local university library happened to have Tim Dunlop's The New Front Page (2013) on its "new books" shelf around the same time. Dunlop's book is primarily a chronicle of his adventures in political blogging and the traditional media since the word "blog" was coined, but he does spend a little time discussing Sunstein's thesis. Dunlop points out that Sunstein's original analysis was conjectural, and that political bloggers since 2002 have, in fact, read and linked to the blogs of their political opponents.
To judge by the comments sections of opinion sites like The Drum and The Conversation, Dunlop is probably right as far as he goes: whatever the political alignment of an article, plenty of commenters of a competing alignment can always find time to criticise the article. That's not to say that the comments are necessarily insightful or constructive, or even that the commenters have actually read and understood the article: The Drum, especially, features plenty of mindless repetition of party lines and dogma. One is tempted to observe that, while Dunlop might be right about the motions, Sunstein was right about the end result.
Thinking about the news that arrives in my inbox, and some of the thoughts I've had about the computer industry in writing this blog, I wonder if politics is actually the least likely subject to end up in a filter bubble. Opposing political forces are at least aware of each other's existence, even if it's only to hold each other up as bogymen. But a computer scientist (for example) constantly surrounded by news about computers can easily forget that the computer industry is but one of numerous industries and agencies that contribute to modern society being what it is. Hence the mutual incomprehension that arises when one industry's orthodoxy conflicts with another industry's orthodoxy.
So I think there's an argument that we're as likely to build a filter bubble by ourselves as we are to have one built for us by technology. All that dogma on the The Drum is a case in point: the critics have the opportunity to engage with an article in a meaningful way, but many simply choose to re-state a party line. Even supposedly sophisticated communications theorists sometimes like to interpret the world through a one-dimensional lens, be it class or race or gender or sexuality or technology. I'm yet to meet a communications theorist offering an "industryist" analysis of the media, but many of us might be doing it in our own amateur way by being bound to the fate of the industry in which we work.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported that Google had recognised Palestine by replacing the name "Palestinian Territories" with "Palestine" on Google's page for the state (or whatever term Israel would prefer that we use).
I'm sure I'd be amongst the first to say that news outlets of all sorts — even the ABC — present plenty of stories that are of no real consequence to anyone. This particular non-story, however, brought me back to an issue that I also encountered in news outlets' description of a widespread cartographic error as an "IT glitch" due to its existence in Google Maps: why should it be newsworthy that Google repeats some information or decision made by its sources?
Google itself is quoted in the Palestine article as saying, modestly enough, that "We consult a number of sources and authorities when naming countries. In this case, we are following the lead of the UN." Google is an aggregator of information after all, not a creator of it. Yet Google's "recognition" of Palestine is news for the ABC.
The Register's coverage of the same story makes more of Israel's opinion that "this change raises questions about the reasons behind this surprising involvement of what is basically a private Internet company in international politics". Israel's reaction is arguably more of a story than Google's change itself. At the risk of having the Israeli foreign ministry releasing similar indignant statements about this blog, though, it begs the question of why the Israelis think it worth commenting on Google's application of a UN decision. (Their real argument is presumably with the UN, who made the decision in the first place, and I'm not going to go there.)
Google is a wealthy and powerful company, to be sure, and the actions of the wealthy and powerful are newsworthy enough in many circumstances. But are news outlets doing themselves or anyone else (bar Google) any favours by reporting as if Google is the final arbiter of all human knowledge and convention?
I recommend to my students that, when doing research, they seek out the original source of some item of information in order to critique and verify it. The difference between primary and secondary sources was, after all, a high school topic for me. But I suppose that they might feel justified in ignoring me when they see that they could get jobs reporting about Google search results.