It’s easy to get frustrated with social media sometimes—the endless inane Twitter fights, the shallow selfies and food porn on Instagram, videos of exploding watermelons and other ephemera on Facebook. But every now and then, something happens that reminds us of how powerful these platforms can truly be, especially when traditional media either isn’t available or fails to do its job properly.
The sit-in on Wednesday in the House of Representatives is just one recent example. In case you missed the whole thing, a group of Democratic members led by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia decided to protest the lack of a vote on proposed gun-control legislation. In the Senate, the group would have been able to filibuster to show their displeasure, but that isn’t allowed in the House—so they staged a sit-in.
Republican members, who control the House, called the session to an end when members refused to take their seats. And since the House controls the cameras that C-SPAN usually uses to broadcast the proceedings of the chamber (something C-SPAN has been trying to change for years), the Republican members shut down the cameras hoping to deny the Democratic protesters any publicity.
In the not-so-distant past, that would have been the end of it. Without cameras broadcasting the event, reports may have filtered out gradually via other means, but there would have been no real-time visual evidence. But now, everyone with a smartphone is effectively their own media company, a reporter and broadcaster all in one, thanks to Twitter and Facebook and their live-streaming tools. In other words, media has been almost completely democratized, for better or worse.
So first one and then another Democratic House members got out their cellphones and started streaming live video using Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming app. Others started using Facebook Live, the social network’s relatively new streaming feature. Then C-SPAN and a number of other news broadcasters picked up some of the Periscope and Facebook streams and re-broadcast them. Soon, thousands were watching live.
Obviously, there have been other, far more compelling examples of democratized media and what it is capable of than a bunch of congressmen and women sitting on the floor of the House ordering pizza. Live video and updates from Egypt’s Tahrir Square or demonstrations in Turkey definitely qualify.
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There are some fairly obvious downsides to this phenomenon as well—and more examples of that every day—whether it’s Twitter harassment or Facebook Live streaming a rape, or the shooting death of a Chicago man in real-time. Ultimately, these tools serve to amplify human behavior, regardless of whether it’s good or bad behavior.
It’s also easy to get caught up in how democratic these kinds of events are—an example of what former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo called “the global village square”—and forget that all of this democracy is being controlled by one or two giant, privately-held corporations. In the case of Facebook, thanks to multiple-voting shares, it’s controlled by a single individual.
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The risks of this kind of structure are worth remembering as well—the tweets that get censored because a foreign government ordered Twitter to do so, the user data that gets passed on to security organizations, the Facebook pages that get deleted because they fail to meet some internal test of community standards. This isn’t so much a village square as a shopping mall with private security guards.
Despite those caveats, however, there’s no question that we’re better off than we were before—when the House could simply turn off the cameras, and foreign governments could censor the press much more easily by threatening a couple of newspapers or arresting a TV reporter or two.
Ultimately, the question of whether we use those tools for exploding watermelons and the harassment of people who disagree with us is our choice. Some of that is driven by the needs of media companies as their industry gets disrupted from top to bottom, and some of it is simply an expression of human nature, multiplied a thousand-fold by networked social platforms. But at least we have a choice.