Just about anyone can create and share content on the Internet nowadays. And for the average millennial (lurker and/or troll) who engages with the Internet, who does not give a second thought about it, it begs the question: should we be more conscious of what information we are consuming, and whom it is being put out by?
Our understanding of the Internet has exponentially grown since its conception twenty-five years ago and with it our involvement has dramatically shifted from browsers of content, to developers and curators of it. With essential Internet tools and methods of content delivery in the hands of everyday people, the Internet has become highly socially driven. However, levels of engagement are gravely imbalanced as the Internet better suits some as a means of dispersing content than it does others.
In one form or another; whether it be through photo sharing, Twitter debates, or even “liking” something on Facebook, there is an unwavering need to be part of the discourses happening on the Internet. People don’t want to be fed information, but rather, they would create it themselves. This fact could not be truer for the millennial, whose natural habitat seems to be inside the latest smart phone, with the latest update to smoothly run social media apps.
A few years ago, The New Yorker quoted Clay Shirky’s work in an article and how he was “proclaiming the coming age of the digital millennium”. From this, the article (written by Adam Gopnik) continued to say “new connective technology, by joining people together in new communities and in new ways, is bound to make for more freedom.” For the most part, this conclusion is sound and it is supported with the formation of groups of people with common interests and curiosities. For instance, the Internet is a highly visual space and is a hub for aspiring photographers and established ones to share their shots. Stewert Butterfield, co-founder of Vancouver based photo community, Flickr (before it was acquired by Yahoo!) told the Vancouver Sun that
“There is a big shift in the perception and attitudes about what it is to participate in stuff online. The shift has brought with it a desire among the widespread community to participate online, not just watch. It’s creating their own interactions rather than just consuming something that was produced for them.” (Shaw G3)
This outlook is optimistic. It suggests that everyone is capable of creating or entering an online community and engages. However, Butterfield is speaking from the data obtained from his own company – one that has ultimately grown to become one of the largest and most influential photo sharing platforms. He states that there is “a desire among the widespread community to participate online, not just watch.” The “widespread community” he refers to is not so widespread as he thinks.
The Real Picture
At the Oxford Internet Institute, studies are also done to essentially map out the geography of information on the Internet. They have done studies ranging from broadband affordability to the visibility of some of the largest newspapers in the world. But speaking directly to Butterfield’s claim on what is happening on Flickr, we will examine a case study the Oxford Internet Institute did on Flickr to see how true Butterfield’s claims are.
It is given that the Internet (with media sharing platforms like Flickr) allow people that are physically far apart from one another to communicate; but, individuals who make up these communities, who spread information, talk to each other, and henceforth the world as well, are not so widespread as thought. The map below, generated by the Oxford Internet Institute goes to show just how involved the world is on Flickr. The blue and pink dots depict the number of photographs that are tagged according to where they were taken and posted on the platform.
As seen, there is a clear depiction of more photos being taken and tagged in North America (more specifically, the United States), Western Europe, and Japan following close behind than anywhere else in the world. These are the most populated areas in the world, but since the platform is host to over five billion photos, there is an imbalance in where photos are coming from. This is further perpetuated by the fact that the images produced by people in the world’s wealthiest regions (Oii, “Mapping Flickr”).
Butterfield claims that there is a desire among a “widespread community” to participate and interact by creating their content. However, the findings in the “Mapping Flickr” study shows otherwise. Butterfield is under the notion that anyone who has access to the Internet can post a picture and share with anyone else on the platform. He is correct, but only to an extent. Being that a large majority of pictures is coming from the richest countries, there is already a problem with who is exactly participating in this online community. Essentially, there is only a dialogue happening between those who come from a more privileged background, able to share their lives with one another; therefore, alienating those who are not as fortunate. Also, it does not help that Flickr was founded in one of these wealthy countries.
This creates an extremely skewed and problematic perception of the world on the image-sharing platform. Because the Internet is such a highly visual way of engaging with “the world”, and we are only receiving a small sliver of what other people are interacting with, it contradicts the original conception of the Internet bringing people together. If anything, this is creating more division in the world, in terms of equal participation on the Internet.
However, Flickr is only one example of how there is an unequal amount of participation. Butterfield’s statement can be carried across to other platforms other than Flickr. There are many more online communities that involve high engagement levels to keep afloat, and most notable of them all is Wikipedia.
Some Can Wiki Better
Just like how the Oxford Internet Institute examined how contributed articles on Wikipedia reflect the levels of engagement of the Internet. The findings are shocking, as Wikipedia is largely known for being this very open and representational database. You can find out just about anything, anyone, and anything on the site; however, the kinds of people postings such findings are not as widespread and as representational of the world as initially thought.
Titled The Geographically Uneven Coverage of Wikipedia, the study looked at information that was put into Wikipedia in forty-four languages in November 2012. It concluded that much of what is entered into the information database is Eurocentric, more specifically, Western Europe. Since this is a public server in which anyone can edit information, by having this large input of Western European data means that at that time, the bulk of information that was coming into the public domain for people to consume was very limited.
One of the Oxford Internet Institute’s explanations for this was that this over representation of data in Wikipedia was due to a self-focused bias, which means people have a natural inclination to only speak about their surroundings (Oii, “Uneven Coverage of Wikipedia”). Just like how Fickr showed us how images were being posted from the richest countries in the world, the study on Wikipedia shows this same pattern with the number of articles coming in. This coincides with the economic status of places within the red circle on the map. The richer the countries are, the more likely that more events are happening within them (political, societal, etc.), which leads them to, naturally, talk about them more.
This is acceptable; however, because these happenings are being posted online, it means the rest of the world is being very conscious of them and not paying attention to anything else happening in the world. All we hear about is what is happening in Western Europe in the richer countries. In the grander perspective of all this, it really creates a limiting view of what is happening in the entire world. Other events – perhaps much more drastic and important ones – happening in other countries that may not be so wealthy are not focused on enough, or worse, not even mentioned at all by anyone.
What the study also points out is that these articles (and articles based on Europe in general) contain fewer words than others. The average word count for them was 419, while words for articles outside of the red circle in the diagram have an average of 455. Essentially, the bulk of articles for the year were shorter, but made up most of the content that was on Wikipedia, making for smaller, quicker, and easily digestible reads compared to other longer form articles. A possible reason for this is that these countries are more aware of the expectations of the Internet, and write content in a way that is more readable, thus only garnering more traffic towards them, perpetuating this imbalance in known content on the entire online world.
Overall, there is a large disconnect in the proportion of articles pertaining to the physical space they are coming from. The study states that, “Slightly more than half of the global total of 3,336,473 articles are about places, events and people inside the red circle on the map, occupying only about 2.5% of the world’s land area” (Oii, “Uneven Coverage of Wikipedia”). With all of these factors in play, we see that it makes for a very limited global perspective on things happening in the world. For those raised in this digital environment, with the notion that the world is represented on the Internet, no one quite addresses how even of a representation this is. Under this false impression of what the Internet can provide for us, we are in fact limiting our perspectives on how the world is actually made up. Engaging with information from a select majority defeats the purpose of the Internet’s perceived intent of hearing from everybody.
How We Have Come To Participate
We want to be part of what is happening. However, the data shows that only certain people are more a part of the Internet than others. It is not necessarily a fair way of experiencing what goes on the Internet, but we have come to a point in digital history where those who have the resources are their disposal, and know how to properly navigate the digital landscape, can have the most influence on everyone else in it. Looking beyond content participation in online communities, we can also see this prevalent on an even more personal level in the form of social media platforms everyone is familiar with. Take for instance Twitter and Instagram. We have become so influenced by how certain companies have a strong influence on what we see on the Internet. With a simple tool like the hashtag put into posts, we are practically calling out to be included in a popular dialogue. Instead of starting conversations to participate in on our own, we look for ones started by others to join in.
Just because anyone can create and share content on the Internet nowadays, it does not mean everyone has an equal say in what is to be heard. For the average millennial that engages with the Internet, we do not give this much thought. In fact, by not acknowledging it we partake in an extremely repressive discourse that belittles other opinions that do not have the same opportunities to speak out on the Internet. As far as the Internet has evolved in its twenty-five years of existence, we have yet to evolve as fast as it in terms of a just global perspective.
Gopnik, Adam. “THE INFORMATION: How the Internet gets inside us.” The New Yorker 14 & 21 Feb. 2011. Web.
Graham, Mark and Sabbata, Stefano De. “Mapping Flickr.” Information Geographies at the Oxford Internet Institute. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.
Graham, Mark and Sabbata, Stefano De. “The Geographically Uneven Coverage of Wikipedia.” Information Geographies at the Oxford Internet Institute. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.
Shaw, Gillian. “Big shift in online participation”. Vancouver Sun. 21 Feb. 2009: G3. LexisNexis. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.