The Decline of Wikipedia – How Social Media Is Hurting Knowledge

Twitter-Makes-Us-Dumb

 

On Flagging Articles Worth Reading

I rarely flag single articles for blog posts these days.

Here’s why:

When I started this blog nearly two years ago, I included a monthly column that rounded up what I deemed the best “marketing” articles of the month.

The idea was three-fold:

  1. The compilation forced me to read widely about trends in marketing, social media, and public relations so that I could keep up myself, let alone be qualified to share the most insightful pieces each month.
  2. The monthly round-ups gave me, an unknown, nascent blogger – an excuse to reach out to other luminaries in my niche and connect with them. Just a quick “Hey – I highlighted your piece here. And I had this question about it.”
  3. It ensured I’d have an additional monthly blog post back when I was still struggling a bit to find my rhythm. One extra blog post a month doesn’t sound like much, but 12 extra in a year is significant.

Ultimately, I stopped these round-ups for two reasons:

  • They were hard. They required tons more research than ordinary posts, often taking me upwards of three hours to write, even if they were simply 600 words long.
  • Once I reviewed my analytics, I saw they were my least read posts.

In fact, as of this writing, of my 140 published posts, two monthly round-up posts rank in my top three least viewed – with less than six lifetime views each.

The Exception

Having said that, I’m now going to discuss a single article, because it’s important, and it nails some truths I’ve known instinctively for a few years now but have been unable to properly articulate.

The Wired Piece

Last month, Wired published a piece entitled, “How Social Media Endangers Knowledge

The article’s basic thesis is that Wikipedia – the crowd-sourced online encyclopedia — is endangered due to flattening growth in the number of its contributors.

At a time when the site is actually flush with money, it’s lost momentum among those willing to add to the vast body of knowledge it aims to collect.

This is a troubling trend.

The truth is, Americans are reading less.

Bradbury-Quote-Reading

And the prevalence of social media has shortened our attention spans.

But there’s something deeper at work here too.

Author Hossein Derakhshan notes that social media primarily rewards images.

And images are at their heart, anti-intellectual, because the brain thinks in words.

Neil Postman noted in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the rise of television introduced not just a new medium but a new discourse: a gradual shift from a typographic culture to a photographic one, which in turn meant a shift from rationality to emotions, exposition to entertainment.

In an image-centered and pleasure-driven world, Postman noted, there is no place for rational thinking, because you simply cannot think with images.

Images reward emotion rather than logic and rationality, prioritize appearance over substance.

For someone who works in public relations, this isn’t news. A compelling infographic will intrigue a reporter far more easily than an ordinary written pitch.

Humans are, at heart, emotional creatures. And pictures can bypass much of the logical part of our brain and compel us to feel more easily than words.

This has actually become a cliché among writers – novices are taught to “show me, don’t tell me” or use their words to “paint a picture.”

But the troubling part of Derakhshan’s piece is how he draws the straight line from the decline of Wikipedia – which has positioned itself as one of the greatest encyclopedias ever compiled – to the decline of human inquiry and knowledge itself:

“From Facebook to Instagram, [social media] refocuses our attention on videos and images, rewarding emotional appeals—‘like’ buttons—over rational ones. Instead of a quest for knowledge, it engages us in an endless zest for instant approval from an audience, for which we are constantly but unconsciously performing.”

Fake News

It doesn’t help that President Trump and his administration has declared war on facts, attempting to cast any inconvenient or uncomfortable truths as “fake news.”

Donald-Trump-Fake-News

Recent revelations about Russian interference in last year’s presidential election center around systematic disinformation and false propaganda spread by Russian agents via social media.

If facts, and journalism, are under active assault by our highest-ranking government official, is it little wonder that contributions to Wikipedia – which must cite credible sources – have lost their luster?

The Point

Politics aside, the true issue here is this:

Social media (and television before it) reward images over words.

The very words that dictate how we think, reason and convey knowledge – and have done so for thousands of years – are diminishing in importance relative to the latest image or videos and the hunt for instant validation via likes.

As Derakhshan concludes:

“This doesn’t mean it is time to give up. But we need to understand that the decline of the web and thereby of the Wikipedia is part of a much larger civilizational shift which has just started to unfold.”

 

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