Order of Multitudes

Are online encyclopedias, news sites, and social media too intertwined?

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Today, it usually takes only a short amount of time for a viral tweet to quickly become the subject of articles by professional journalists. For example, editors at The New York Times, among many others, stepped in to explain to the world why some of us saw a gold dress, and some a blue one, in that famously confusing picture from 2014.

At its peak, more than 670,000 people were simultaneously viewing Buzzfeed’s post. Between that and the rest of Buzzfeed’s blanket coverage of the dress that Thursday night, the site easily smashed its previous records for traffic. So did Tumblr.

If these tweets get enough press coverage, they can acquire their own online encyclopedia entries. And on the other hand, encyclopedias and dictionaries now have a lot to say to the world of social media. For example, the public voice of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has been one of the current president’s most clever Twitter critics, mostly by offering well-timed definitions of key terms from current political debates. Are these connections between encyclopedias, news sites, and social media a good thing? Could they ever be undone?

To some extent, the transfer of stories and information from more private conversations to more public ones—and finally, to the formal frame of an encyclopedia—is not new at all, and nor are the potential distortions and mistranslations associated with it. But the speed with which these transfers take place in digital media does seem unprecedented. The influence internet users exert on news sites and online encyclopedias, whether through forms of online protest or direct editing, is also unprecedented.

An optimistic view would be that these technological transformations and the mass participation in the creation of news and knowledge is a good thing. In The Wisdom of Crowds and Infotopia, John Surowiecki and Cass Sunstein (respectively) make a series of cases for why crowds can sometimes create more reliable information filters than small teams of elite experts. A single person can only know so much; the more people are involved, the more knowledge they bring to the table, and the more eyes and minds mutually check each other. With this model, social media and blogs should theoretically produce the most reliable, broad, and unbiased forms of information.

But critics point out many exceptions to this optimistic view. First, social media communities are less open and open-minded than one might assume. On Facebook, we tend to be friends with people who share our views; when these people share articles or posts with us that confirm our worldviews, we are easily tempted to believe them without checking whether their sources are reliable or not. Given the speed with which online information circulates, and given the low cost of preserving this information online, it is also hard to separate important facts from trivial ones. Significant news spreads quickly, but so does gossip, and both might receive equal amounts of public attention.

As many bits of knowledge come at us constantly, from all sides, we have less time and space to contemplate and evaluate them; if we are not careful, our responses can, therefore, become more emotional and even more superficial and erroneous than they would be if we engaged with fewer sources at once. Evgeny Morozov makes many of these points in The Net Delusion and To Save Everything, Click Here.

How to maintain meaningful differences between different kinds of information sources—and how to make these sources useful and reliable, rather than confusing or overwhelming—will remain a major challenge. It is not clear how the connections between them could be undone without dramatically restricting online communication altogether.


Marta Figlerowicz

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English, Yale University

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Marta Figlerowicz

Marta Figlerowicz is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University. Her research articulates a counter-tradition to aesthetic individualism in Western art and literature. Her work connects this history from the seventeenth century to our contemporary digitally-mediated moment. Her first book, Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (Oxford University Press, 2016), discusses an odd group of characters found across the long history of the French and British novel whose construction simplifies in the course of a narrative, instead of deepening or expanding. Her second book, Spaces of Feeling: Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature (Cornell University Press, 2017), studies representations of intersubjective affective awareness in American, British, and French fiction and poetry. She is currently developing two new projects: a scholarly examination of the non-individualist phenomenology of contemporary digital media called Myths of Obscurity: The Self in the Age of Integrated Media and a popular audience book on global histories of selfhood. She also writes literary and cultural criticism for publications such as The Washington Post, n+1, Cabinet, Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Yale Review, Logic, and Boston Review.

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