Digital Legacies: Conversations

Julius Wiedemann discusses the possibilities and quality of conversations, facts vs. distortions, and self-regulation in the online community.

by Julius WiedemannPublished on : Feb 16, 2021

As we advance in the expansion of platforms to generate dialogue, we realise that we need conversation. Or better, we are craving for conversations. Dialectic, a structure of questions and answers developed in classic Greek is still the basis for most of us to learn, clear doubts, and exercise the intellect. Faith, for me, is defined as the suspension of critical thinking in favour of a reality that pleases us. In conversations, we can exercise our upmost insecurities, put ourselves openly in vulnerable positions, so that we might be able to learn something new and something counter-intuitive. It is the exercise of reason, the antithesis of faith. And we can do it only if we are able to abandon what haunts us all the time: confirmation bias.

With the latest exponential increase in the use of the app Clubhouse, we are seeing a new phenomenon in social networking: the pent-up demand for conversations, where interlocutors can act spontaneously, and listeners can enter the conversation if they want. Political movements took over the Internet and caused mayhem in the last 10 years, with a form and consequences that were not only unprecedented, but also that generated a much-feared further radicalisation. One reason for that might be the structure of these discourses, the tools involved, and the way people involved can allow, but also discredit any speech. The possibility of real-time discussions where the richness of the content has to rely on a healthy debate, is the only way forward. As in real life, when someone doesn’t respect certain rules, they are excluded from the discussion. This creates a self-correcting tool that is necessary for the development of serious debates.

  • The Clubhouse app interface | Digital Legacies: Conversations | STIRworld
    The Clubhouse app interface Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann
  • A close up of the Clubhouse app | Digital Legacies: Conversations | STIRworld
    A close up of the Clubhouse app Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

The system of likes and comments is very difficult to create “real” real-time engagement. When users can be very selective about their opinions, have the tool to distort facts, can rely on bullying, but can also cancel others, the structure becomes easily unfair. Trolls should be not allowed in most conversations for the fact that they are not interested in a discussion. They are only interested in wild reactions and in the creation of high anxiety. When there is no fear anymore that fake news will be punished, the consequence is dire. Facebook and Twitter know that very well.

Social networks are now fearing regulation, especially after the Democrats in the United States, to cover both the Senate and the Congress. It is no wonder that (Donald) Trump received a severe punishment right after the Democrats consolidated their domination in American politics for the next couple of years. There is a general feeling that social networks should be considered as media channels, or even if something different, it would still need regulation so that massive fake news and influence of algorithms cannot disrupt the public life as it had in the last decade. The question here is only that they are the ones that hold the keys for a better control. No one knows how to do that. But we know that we cannot allow companies to regulate themselves. It has never worked, and it will never work. Self-regulation is an illusion.

Image of an online conference in Israel | Digital Legacies: Conversations | STIRworld
Image of an online conference in Israel Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

What new platforms such as Clubhouse are bringing to the table is not self-regulation by companies. It is self-regulation by members of a group that can determine the rules of engagement for a healthy conversation. The difference is huge. People want to feel safe and want to have a balance between guarantees and stimulations. Guarantees between control and trust. And guarantees between predictability and serendipity. When everything is not only possible but also allowed, it becomes very fast a tool for people with bad intentions. People who have a greater control over manipulations will always make use of what I call the useful innocents. If we do not develop better ideas on how to create healthy dialogues, we will be missing the opportunity to educate the next generation about how civilised conversations should be conducted. They will not only have the worst examples; they will take for granted all the effort that was done by thousands of people in the course of history so that we are allowed to say today online what would be severely punishable to publish just some decades ago.

A Zoom meeting screen | Digital Legacies: Conversations | STIRworld
A Zoom meeting screen Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

We have to welcome every effort of social networks to educate users. The Clubhouse phenomenon is teaching us that the Internet is so dynamic that it might be itself a self-regulating tool. It allows creative people to imagine new types of interactions, which will then take up time from other companies, and will make them look really hard at their models. We are mature enough to make distinctions. There are certainly subtleties that need to be observed and are hard to be defined. Values are not the same for everyone. But for most part we know the difference between freedom of speech for example and incitement of violence, or the difference between a bad review and the organised bullying. Let’s adopt new tools to create a new culture around conversations.

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