Social media is bigger
For the purposes of this discussion let’s ignore the more marginal networks like Tagged or Pinterest and focus on the main players. According to recent figures released by the social media strategist company Hasai, Facebook now has base of 850m users across the globe and Twitter has 300m. That’s a total of 1.15 billion people.
It’s not so much the conversational dynamics that differ between bar talk and online talk; it’s more a question of scale. Imagine a bar the size of Europe and you’ll get the picture. But while on the surface the dynamics of social media communication seem roughly similar to those in offline communication, social media possesses one main strength that makes it considerably more powerful.
Social media is quicker
- Either we can regulate what is said
- or we can regulate where things are said.
Our freedom of speech will inevitably suffer, as we saw this week with the release of China’s points system for the Chinese version of Twitter. According to Mashable, users will start off with 80 points and they will lose some of these every time they post anything that harms the ‘unity, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the nation‘.
Now this seems like a harsh line to take and I can’t see any such system being adopted any time soon by democratic countries, but if you imagine such censorship being employed in times of emergency on social media channels, it could be one way of preventing things from getting out of hand. Of course, to prevent the system from being abused the situations under which such restrictions could be imposed would have to be defined very clearly.
Freedom of speech will remain largely in tact. People will be able to say what they like, but authorities would be able to cut off conversation on social media in specific locations where extreme situations could potentially arise. A recent anti-government demonstration by the 15M movement in Madrid shows how this tactic contains a situation while still allowing people total freedom of speech.
The crowds began gathering around 2pm and by 8pm, when crowds in excess of 30,000 converged on Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, mobile phone coverage went down. Whether this was an intentional outage or whether the networks were simply overloaded within a radius of about a mile is unclear, but the effect was the same. The crowds still felt able to participate in the demonstration, to voice their demands and express their discontent. The only thing they were prevented from doing due to the outage was gathering on social networks where ideas and sentiments would be able to spread like wildfire and where they’d potentially be able to organize themselves.
To me the second option seems by far the most appealing of the two. Regulating where things are said functions in much the same way as breaking up large gatherings of people in public places, which is totally legal and necessary to prevent outbreaks of violence. Having such a large concentration of people in one small area with access to online tools that facilitate communication and organisation could after all be highly dangerous.
I don’t think many would disagree that freedom of speech is a defining factor of western society and one that most are very proud of, and opting for a method of regulation that still preserves our freedom to express our beliefs seems both sensible and advisable. One thing is clear, though, and that is that the rules surrounding the press need to be updated to accommodate the scale that social media is taking on.