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This is a book review of You Are Here which provides a critique on the current political media landscape from a predominantly US perspective. I decided to read the book given that it was endorsed by online media researcher and author danah boyd. danah is most famous for her long time researching the online lives of young people. I first came across her when she worked briefly at Yahoo! Research.
Navigating polarised speech, conspiracy theories and media landscape
You Are Here is written by two American academics: Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner. In the book they try to make sense of the current media landscape and what they consider to be the likely causes.
Ecology as metaphor
You Are Here uses the metaphor of ecology to discuss a polluted landscape poisoning society. This has two effects:
- It taps into the deep concerns of their readers who have a lot of anxiety around areas like climate change
- It encourages system thinking in people who are otherwise not system thinkers
The downside is that it might convey the kind of desperation and hopelessness that we see around climate change also affect the media landscape creating a kind of dark ennui among the readers.
Phillips and Milner focus on conspiracy theories going back the satanist concerns of the 1980s and 1990s. While conspiracy theories are important and memetic in nature, there is a risk that focusing on them misses a wider truth. Why do people feel the way they do? Brexit research showed us that a good deal of concern was about the rate of change and being economically left behind. The role of class and the isolation of working class voices and issues in political discourse and the media left the door open for conspiracy theories.
Strengths and weaknesses
You Are Here does a good job at summarising much of the current media theory thinking about how platforms alter our collective perceptions.
You Are Here describes itself as a field guide. A field guide is a book designed to help readers identify things or phenomena rather than offering solutions per se. The reality is that for most readers, their exposure to the content discussed in the book through the proverbial rear view mirror of coverage on MSNBC News, The New York Times or The Atlantic or conversations with friends and family members who live outside the major cities. There is an assumption that the interested reader is unaware of the current media landscape. In this respect the book is likely to raise anxiety, entrench beliefs and focus the reader on regulation as the sole solution to the current media landscape. I don’t think that this will necessarily move things forward. It will reinforce progressive readers own biases. I recognise and identify with Phillips and Milner’s world view, which is similar to my own – but I have some self awareness of my own viewpoint in a sea of opinions.
A decade ago I worked with Amy Gershkoff. Amy had previously been involved in the media planning and analytics for the campaign to re-elect President Obama. At the time, the narrative being communicated was that media and social media platforms through the judicious use of data and optimising for algorithms offered the opportunity to help Obama to be re-elected.
The reality of these things are somewhat different. Programmatic media is often correctly targeting half the time. But when it gets it right, it can be creepy.
Amy took this story to large corporates in Hong Kong and China, which was where I was working at the time. The irony of ‘the power of modern political campaigning online’ being used as an example of omni-channel marketing for Chinese companies wasn’t lost on me. Phillips and Milner’s stance misses this wider picture.
The Obama campaign built on pioneering work that has been done by the like of Joe Trippi for Howard Dean when he ran for consideration as the future Democrat presidential candidate eight years earlier.
The point is that there is a case to be made paraphrasing Goldie Lookin’ Chain ‘Platforms doesn’t poison democracy, people do.’
You Are Here tries to articulate a route for individuals to navigate the media environment, rather than building a groundswell to try and change it for the better. I can’t help but feel that there’s an opportunity having been lost and the polarisation will continue.