Occasionally there are times when something in the world of technology changes and you just know that somehow things are never going to be the same. The launch of the iPhone on June 29, 2007. When Amazon changed the world of books forever with the Kindle (November 19, 2007). Broadband adoption topping 50% of the US Internet-using population (April 2008). Tablet sales overtaking PC sales (February 2014). The day your Mom friended you on Facebook…
You probably have other events you could point to, but the reality is this: they all marked important societal changes. And while we may not have understood or been able to foresee where these changes were going to take us (except for the “Mom on Facebook” thing), it was still probably clear that the world wasn’t going to be the same as it was before.
Now there’s a new one.
In January of 2015, PR giant Edelman released the 15th edition of their “Trust Barometer” study, a global survey of 27,000 people between 25-64 years old in over 27 different countries (including an “informed publics” oversample that added college educated people in the top 25% income bracket per age group in each country). Every year the survey is taken to examine the idea of trust and how we as consumers trust (or distrust) institutions such as corporations, government, and media. Over the past decade and a half the study has been quoted in numerous books and articles and is generally regarded as a reliable barometer of public sentiment around the world.
What they found this year is amazing: for the first time in the history of the survey, people indicated that they trust their own ability to find news and information more than they trust traditional media to find it for them. Out of the 6,000 “informed publics” surveyed worldwide, 64% said that they trust search engines for news and information versus 62% who trusted traditional media for the same information. When asked where they turned for information about business (newspapers, TV, or online), online blew newspapers and TV out of the water for both “first source of general information” and “source used most to confirm/validate news.” For breaking news, TV and online were equal, though the trend over the past 3 years is up for online, down for TV.
For the first time there’s clear evidence that the implications of the Information Age are finally starting to sink in. Rather than rely—as we have for over a century—on others to curate information for us, we’re now starting to take advantage of the fact that we, the general public, have more information available to us than any other human has had at any other time in history. Rather than entrust information gathering to news organizations—many of which we’ve been losing trust in pretty steadily over the years—we’re turning to search engines to assemble our own “newspapers” out of what’s out there, becoming active rather than passive consumers of news and information.
Perhaps it’s a result of “bias burnout” from our increasingly-polarized mass news media. Perhaps it’s just a general distrust of formerly trustworthy institutions such as the “big” news media and government. Or maybe it’s just a question of overall distrust of “others” in general: the survey also found that friends and family are the most trusted (72%) sources of information, followed closely by academic experts (70%). CEOs (43%) and government officials (38%) were considered the least credible, though family-owned businesses were deemed trustworthy by 75% of residents from the developed countries surveyed.
If this survey is to be believed it seems apparent that we’re all turning away from “the official story” and entering a period of do it yourself (DIY) news and information.
If true, this is a phenomenon that’s been in the works for a few years now resulting in the rise of “expert patients” who go to their doctors armed with health blog tips, or the self-taught “expert amateur” technology inventors/entrepreneurs inventing blockbuster new products in their basements and garages and then commercializing them through crowdfunding sources such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Combine these trends with the explosion of free online education from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and commercial providers such as CodeAcademy.com and it’s clear that the “official story”, no matter if it’s being said by doctors or bankers, is being challenged.
But this “DIY information” trend isn’t just limited to individuals creating their own information sources based on their own searching behavior. The rise of social media as a communication channel has given all of us a platform to share the information we find with those we actually do trust: friends and family.
In a few short years, social media has arguably become one of the most important communication channels in our society. According to recent (January 2015) numbers from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 79% of Internet-using adults (85% of the US) use social media on a regular basis, numbers that work out to indicate that 67% of all US adults are regular users of social media. By comparison, 65% of Americans get their news by watching network TV news, 38% watch cable news on TV, and a mere 23% read newspapers.
And social media users aren’t just passive consumers of information. According to ShareThis 81% of Facebook users report actively sharing news and information on the social networking site, information that’s (pretty much by definition) shared amongst friends and family members, though admittedly the definition of “friends” has loosened somewhat since the launch of the service.
In the DIY Information Era, we are “the media.”
This shift has huge implications when it comes to everything from advertising to politics. Anyone who needs to reach a mass audience needs to recognize that the days of “mass media” as it existed for centuries since the first newspaper was published in 1605 are over. Even if you think that going back to the 17th century is a bit of a stretch, it’s been almost 100 years since the first national radio broadcast (KDKA in 1920) and almost 70 years since the launch of network TV news (CBS Television News in 1948). It’s not a stretch to say that mass media defined the 20th century, impacting virtually every aspect of American life by helping to create what we have come to think of as “American Culture.” And even if that culture was never quite as homogeneous as those in the mass media would have led us to believe, its ubiquity at least created the impression of a consensus reality by presenting an idealized version of American life to aspire to, even if some couldn’t (wouldn’t) identify with it.
If mass media created the consensus reality of yesterday, social media and search engines are creating the reality of tomorrow, and that reality probably isn’t going to include much consensus. While nobody’s been able to definitively prove it, there’s a good chance that the increasing polarization we see in politics and public discourse is a result of what happens when people are more-or-less left to their own devices to find the news and information they want to read. You only have to look at the twin-lobed visualizations of political discussions on Twitter to see that people only like to talk to others who agree with their own views on controversial topics, creating the “echo chamber” effect where we just hear what we want to hear. And even if we consciously get on the Internet to look for new or opposing viewpoints on subjects that interest us the “black box” algorithms, identified by UMD Law professor Frank Pasquale in his book The Black Box Society, control everything from what search engines show us to what ads we see. These unnoticed norms actively work against our desires for “unbiased” news and information, a problem also known as the “Filter Bubble” effect. As much as we try to create our own stories, our own stories are hard at work creating us.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this piece, we’re at another one of those inflection points where technology begins to change society in ways that nobody really understands with consequences we can’t even imagine yet. Even so, we can look to the past for clues about how to deal with these changes.
Probably the most important lesson to learn in order to deal with the uncertainties of the DIY Information Age is the lesson that all do-it-yourself enthusiasts learn pretty early on in their home repair/improvement journeys: it’s hard to get good results if you don’t have the right tools.
Today, the “tools” we need aren’t technological, they’re mental.
In a world where we’re all responsible for constructing our own realities (or signing on with others) via what we can glean through search engines and social media, understanding why is becoming more important than how. As technology becomes more advanced it also becomes easier to use, to the point where digital savvy means knowing how to press the right glowing button. The systems at work become increasingly opaque to users, eventually disappearing from their consciousness until the “how” question becomes irrelevant.
You only have to look to our relationship to automobiles to see how this has played out over the years. A quarter of a century ago most people could (and did) perform routine maintenance on their own vehicles because they could (and many wanted to). Before the advent of computer-controlled transmissions and ignition systems cars might have been more cantankerous, a quality that required drivers to have a basic understanding of how they worked, but they were also easier to understand. Today there are a few hobbyists (“car hackers?”) who tinker at home, but most drivers don’t have to. Technology has made cars more reliable and easier to use, but it’s also made the inner workings more opaque (and irrelevant) to most drivers.
Digital technology has progressed pretty much the same way. In the early days of the personal computer revolution, it wasn’t unusual to have to crack open the box to add a component (e.g. RAM) or dig into the operating system (e.g. setting up a network connection). Today, the most advanced technology (e.g. tablets) is constructed to actively dissuade us from cracking the case and the OS has become something that literally a baby could use. It’s becoming increasingly less important for users to have to understand the inner workings of computers and networking and a lot more important that we understand why we’re using them and to what ends. When the process becomes invisible (or irrelevant), it’s the outcome that matters most. Nobody talks about “pencil literacy.” Instead, we talk about (and teach) writing.
As we move towards the era of DIY Information in which the technology to gather information becomes easier and easier to use it will become increasingly important that we understand the limitations of that technology and its outcomes. As Lucy Holman states in her article “Millennial Students’ Mental Models of Search,” “rather than teaching students more effective search syntax [for use on search engines], more attention should be placed on developing critical thinking and evaluative [mental] tools.”
In other words, in the DIY Information Age, we all need to learn how to question the realities we create.