The golden era has ended…yet again. Media and movements (often entwined) arise and thrive in this so-called gilded time. We marvel at new capabilities, new ideas, new diversions. But then the luster dulls. It is happening to social media–and by extension, the digital realm–amid concerns about fake news, hate speech, and data privacy. And as stated above, it has happened before.
Television was the breakthrough medium after the Second World War, having shown its rudimentary promise during the Depression. The 1950s were the golden era of TV: the comedy of Lucille Ball and the commentary of Edward R. Murrow, the culture of Leonard Bernstein and the explosion of Elvis. Nevertheless, as the decade progressed, the sensation was seen as something more sinister.
In the early 1950s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind.” The quote came from The Mechanical Bride, a work dealing primarily with print advertising and messaging; however, the observation was fully applicable to the advertisers sponsoring, dictating and populating television programming.
In 1958, Edward R. Murrow, the acclaimed journalist who helped staunch McCarthyism with a damning report on the senator, warned that television was “nothing but lights and wires in a box” if used solely to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.” In 1961, Newton Minow, head of the Federal Communications Commission, famously declared television “a vast wasteland.” Debate and regulation regarding TV content intensified to reduce commercialism and modulate depictions of sex and violence while boosting educational programming, fair political communications, and appropriate children’s viewing during designated dayparts.
In the first decade of the 21st century, social media swept society in the manner of television. It was Web 2.0, the second, greater manifestation of the digital era, emulating the broadcast era’s reconfiguration under TV. With the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and ongoing use of blogs, we were immersed, participating, and publishing, further solidifying McLuhan’s 1962 prediction of a computer-based medium. We could create our content, report our own news, and construct new types of community, all from the field with the simultaneous ascendancy of mobile devices. Social media’s role in the Arab Spring, the pan-national movement in 2011 to topple Mideast dictators, was held up as an example of social media’s beneficence.
But further paralleling television’s evolution, doubts surfaced about social media’s contributions and effects. In 2012, consultant and author Shel Israel pondered if social media had become a vast wasteland per Minow’s model. Israel remained hopeful that the good of the communication technology would prevail, but he concluded with the instruction, “It is up to us.”
In 2018, the wasteland argument has strengthened. The 2016 presidential election underscored the prevalence of fake news and hate speech generated and shared through social media. Mass-manipulation campaigns traverse social media with ease, fueled with copious personal data openly provided and opaquely mined. At the same time, teenage bullies manipulate their own target audiences with identical tools.
Traditional news media (all with a social media presence) have sounded the alarm of societal threats, concurrently re-establishing their relevance and sowing more distrust among divided audiences. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and face of the social media boom, has appeared before the US Congress and EU Parliament regarding the sanctity of data and accuracy of news within the world’s largest social media platform. Regulation looms to protect users and curb excesses.
Social media’s golden age is history. Before we welcome a “new” vast wasteland, we must ask if it is merely continuation of the old one. After Minow’s speech, how many people roused themselves for “Sunrise Semester”? How many merely bristled or shrugged when accused of “low brow” tastes for tuning in “The Beverly Hillbillies”? (Worth comparing the label to “deplorables.”) Are we navigating the same media wasteland today? Is it the killing ground of society…or a mirror?