Are social networks really killing the web?

Occasionally I stumble on blog posts describing how social networks are killing the internet. The claim is that people are becoming locked into social media so much that they no longer surf the web like they used to. Instead, they rely on information shared within the closed environment provided by sites like Facebook.

These articles annoy me. To begin with, the internet is really the underlying infrastructure on which everything online, including the social networks themselves, exist. But pedantry aside, and assuming that these authors are really referring to the death of the web, is it really true that social networks have any potential to actually kill off the rest of the web?

Certainly much of the technology that is emerging out of the social media sphere has raised concerns over how we share and access information. Perhaps the most convincing argument along these lines is that of the “filter bubble” presented by Eli Pariser in his book by the same name and in his TED talk on the subject. Pariser’s concern is that as filtering technologies develop, our exposure to information becomes increasingly limited, so that eventually we only see the web through the tiny window provided by the sites that we use.

Google’s new privacy policy is a point in question. Google claims that by being able to develop a clearer profile of its users it can provide more relevant content to people in their searches and the way in which they see the web. Facebook pushes the same vision. By understanding your relationships to other people and your general interests, the things that are shared with you are slowly reduced down to something that an algorithm calculates to be closer to something you will want to know about.

Many people feel that we suffer from information overload on the web, and people like Hilton Tarrant at Memeburn will go out and praise the fact that filtering is improving and at least advertising is becoming more targetted. Indeed, it is hard to object to the idea that the technology has evolved to a point where search results are more efficient and relevant than ever before and that you’re much less likely to get viagra ads if you are of a particular gender, but I must admit that I fall on the side of Pariser on this point. That’s largely because as a journalist, I am often interested in things that my particular circles have not encountered yet, or which will make good news. I’m pretty sure that you don’t just have to have journalistic tendencies to be interested in discovering things outside of the norm.

But are people really that trapped within their social networks that they have become blind to the wider picture on the web? Bubble filters and social networks are not all that new. Way back in the 90s I spent many hours a day reading posts on my favourite newsgroups on the UseNet. When the web first started gaining traction, I collected bookmarks like crazy, because I wanted to keep returning to places that captured my interest. None of this ever stopped me from discovering new things on the internet on a daily basis.

Last year, sites as prominent as the New York Times, tried to present a picture which claimed that blogs were dying out as people migrated into social networks like Twitter and Facebook. It is certainly true that the number of people who are blogging today has undergone a steady decline, but this isn’t because they’ve all just given up. They’ve simply changed tools to share information. The people who have switched to using sites like Twitter and Facebook have only done so because there is better reach and these sites offer better facilities to achieve their goals. There are still millions of bloggers out there that continue to use services like WordPress, because their goals are slightly different.

The truth is that people’s interests are incredibly diverse, and social networks often expose you to information you would not necessarily discover on the Web without them. The Kony 2012 meme is the most striking example of this. The topic that it is dealing with is uncomfortable for most people, and is certainly not something that most people would voluntarily expose themselves to. Social media has suddenly put Uganda into the limelight, and the search statistics show that people aren’t just relying on shared links to find out more information. Social networks have simply facilitated the spread of information in a way that was unachievable before.

I have many problems with social networks, mostly related to privacy and control over identity data, but one thing that social networks are not guilty of is killing the web. This week I will be running a marathon to raise money for a small school in South Africa. I set up a very small website to handle my fundraising initiative. Once upon a time, sharing my concern with the rest of the world was almost entirely dependent on flakey email and poor search ranking algorithms. Thanks to social media, I have been able to share the site with a much broader base of people and have raised much more than I ever expected.

So, next time you see an article or blog post claiming that social networks are destroying the web, think again. The greatest power that social networks have is their ability to expose us to things we never would have searched for in the first place.



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