It's Simply Human Nature

Friday, December 30, 2011
(NOTE: this piece was the final assignment for my recently completed JOURN 201 class.  We were tasked to postulate where we see journalism heading over the next 10 years or so when common people can communicate across physical, virtual and ideological 'battlelines'.  We were instructed to write a magazine-style article that was limited to 1,000 words.  My submission came in at 995.  The instructor's comments were "excellent as far as you went".  I finished the course with an 'A' and am looking forward to the next course which starts late next month.)

It’s Simply Human Nature
Social networking success links back to humanity’s most basic need

People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people - and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time.
- Mark Zuckerberg

It appears that the co-creator of Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking website, may have tapped into a primal necessity that still influences modern man.

In an age where many people have less discretionary time to maintain their numerous life relationships, the Internet now provides a medium to facilitate an online 24/7 presence to those we want to remain in contact with and to connect to others with similar interests or backgrounds. 

His website, the most prolific of those identified with the Web 2.0 social/interactive movement of the last decade, boasts over 800 million users throughout the world and is considered by many to be an integral part of daily living in the 21st century.  Others in this category include Twitter, a micro-blogging site that limits postings to 140 characters or less, and LinkedIn, a site that caters to professional networking activities.

Zuckerberg’s words ring true because, over 65 million years of evolution, the human race has been a species whose overall success profoundly relies upon an innate need of connections among its members.  Originally banding as hunter-gatherers in small, autonomous groups, mankind’s adoption of shared social structures, based upon the agrarian principles of surplus and the consolidation of resources and labor, led to the concentration of people within ever expanding formal jurisdictions that increased opportunities for interpersonal contact and the overall advancement of all descendants of the Hominidae family.

One of the basic requirements of an advanced society is the acquisition and dissemination of data about one’s surroundings, either on a local level or on a global scale.  Journalism, today’s version of the information distribution activities employed in the Greek agora and Roman forum over two millennium ago, performs this service through the use of mediums developed and advanced by mankind’s greater understanding of our environment’s physical properties.  News that once took weeks or months to spread between far-flung locations by physical means can now occur almost instantaneously through a variety of advanced communication methods.

One advantage of these improvements is seen in the reduction of censorship activities.  People once closed off to outside information or influences can now access media outlets through a variety of methods that grow increasingly difficult to stymie or effectively block by controlling authorities.  News customarily disseminated through official outlets can be directly compared to other non-partisan sources to determine their validity and gauge their trustworthiness against more reliable external providers.

Events challenging these practices occurred this past year throughout the Middle East as citizens in long-time suppressed nations utilized web resources such as Facebook and Twitter to more effectively organize their protests and voice their opposition to those authoritarian governments.  An ‘Arab Spring’ enveloped this region and revolutions happening in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya led to regime changes through coups of the traditional and ‘bloodless’ varieties.

Such techniques were not limited solely to violent uprising or revolutions.  Occupy Wall Street, a grassroots movement spawned by the perception of corporate greed in the United States and other capitalistic societies, used social networking means to bypass traditional American news outlets that chose not to cover their activities due to lack of interest or lack of understanding of the group’s aims.

It was not until the posting and subsequent mass viewing of videos capturing unwarranted police actions taken against defenseless protesters in lower Manhattan and other cities that the “mainstream media” began to take notice of their plight.  Armed only with their convictions and digital imaging devices, many members uploaded first-hand documentation of their ‘occupations’ to a network of linked websites that provided a 24/7 platform to plead their collective cases to the public at large.

Considering these exploitation means and techniques did not exist a decade ago, it would be hard to imagine what will be available to society—and, by default, journalists—ten years from now.  Web 3.0, a so-called ‘semantic’ evolution of today’s internet, will deal mostly with improvements concerning metadata and other machine language-related upgrades that will assist the user when completing a variety of tasks on a multitude of networked interface devices.

Siri, Apple’s digital personal assistant application for its latest generation of iPhones, is the first of a projected wave of semantic, cloud, and natural language processing tools designed to help machines and people work in a more cooperative manner. 

This looming technology change could manifest itself among journalists by allowing them to concentrate on the content and quality of their work while the machine manages all aspects involving its ‘navigation’ out to the end-user (links, feeds, coding, tagging).  Such an arrangement will lead to an even less involvement by humans in news production organizations already reeling from transformations in their industry caused by the public’s widespread adoption of the web nearly 15 years ago.

Already freed from traditional temporal and distribution constraints, consumers will be able to make the next logical step and eliminate the traditional producers completely out of their acquisition process, opting for a search engine to be their information aggregator instead of the daily newspaper or the nightly newscast.  To maintain their relevance in contemporary society, many journalism outlets have established a presence on Facebook and in other parts of the web’s many online communities. 

While iconified by the business sector for demonstrating that online social networking can be a very profitable venture, Zuckerberg and his fellow proprietors simply paired an understanding of human nature with a modern method of interpersonal connectivity to provide an online solution for a basic need.  Fortunately, we can rest assured that there will be others who will apply forthcoming technologies to help meet the enduring requirements and responsibilities associated with our communal species.

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