Rewire by activist and scholar Ethan Zuckerman looks at the internet, social media and connectedness. He claims that in this connected age, that even though it is easier than ever before to share information many people have a narrower view of the world than in less connected times. There are less international stories in the mass media than there were 40 years ago, and we haven’t become and won’t become digital cosmopolitans overnight due to new technologies. Most individuals are primarily concerned with a close set of friends and relatives and although information is global, our attention is highly localised and tribal.
There has been a seismic shift in the way we consume media in the last decade or two. Some people think this is a good thing – the cyberutopians, some don’t – the cyberskeptics. Citizens previously relied on professional journalists and editors to provide curated media stories. Now we tend to use search to locate stories of interest or rely on our social networks to provide us with the stories we want to hear. Curators such as editors and news anchors have become less powerful and in their place are the global giants of search and social.
But what are the limitations and dangers of discovery through social and search? One of the major concerns is the invisible influence of personalised search, where most of the content we see has been tailored by algorithms which respond to the web pages and people we connect with on a daily basis online. Zuckerman cites Bill Bishop “Americans have physically relocated to communities where their neighbours are likely to share their ideology.” Is personalised search giving us a narrower view of the world than we did before? We have formed ‘local’ micropublics in our social networks, are we actually becoming more parochial as a result?
Zuckerman suggests that if we want to become digital cosmopolitans we need to rewire the way we are connected by re-considering how we consume the media and also by seeking to broaden our circle of friends. Customisation has lowered the chances of serendipity. He predicts that in the future this will change and social networks and search engines will offer the facilities to encourage us to encounter the unexpected to enable exploration and discovery. These potential tools have the opportunity to change the world we live in and make a positive impact on our future.
There are some interesting concepts in this book and it is written in an accessible and engaging style. My only criticism is that some of the case studies are a bit long winded at times.