Dervla O'Brien | June 6, 2021
*Try clicking the mute button next to the title!
Note on the subtitles: these subtitles are in Irish and come from seanfhocail. A seanfhocail literally means an old phrase, but better translated as a proverb. These proverbs can perhaps highlight a different perspective on the world, I include them here as a little indication of what the internet might look like if we had included more perspectives in conversations.
Go to the world and it will come to you
This year, TikTok is booming. As it gained popularity, my Mum asked the question she usually asks when a new social media platform arises, “How is this one different from the others?” A straightforward question, but one I could probably write a dissertation on.
While you can upload images of textposts to Instagram and curated photos to Twitter, tweaks to the platform mean essentially the same functionality has a different core user base. The reasons for that can be difficult to succinctly explain. LinkedIn and Facebook are pretty similar, you make a profile, you post news or thoughts occasionally, you react to acquaintances and yet, the difference in social norms on the platforms are huge.
Why are there user base differences between increasingly similar platforms? Branding, novelty, and company history play a part, but it also depends on the inner workings of the mystical, black-box algorithms.
With ‘influencer’ fast becoming a dream career for young people, content creators are keen to go viral so they can monetise their content, create Patreons or create passive income streams like “merch” and music, thus turning this work into a sustainable job. However, different platforms reward content in different forms. Anyone can technically post anything (within ToS), but when people rely on this content to make money, they of course become strategic about what succeeds. “Art imitates life, which imitates art,” but art also imitates what’s profitable.
When I downloaded Tiktok in my lockdown boredom, I was surprised to find this algorithm was different. While it isn’t perfect, it has an echo of the early days of youtube: the excitement and feeling of possibility, of something new. Something about the way the discovery algorithm works meant that for the first time I was seeing local content recommended to me. Between the larger user base and the unique emphasis on the “for you” recommendations, fame has been distributed so much that there seems to be no limit to the number of huge TikTokers.
I am from Northern Ireland, and even though I often actively try to seek out interesting local content on YouTube, it’s difficult to find the crossover of my locality and my interests at any scale. On TikTok, it feels like an endless stream of exactly what I’d forgotten I’d ever looked for. I even know four people IRL who have a video with hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok.
Watching people with Northern Irish accents get so many views I also realised how much I had grown accustomed to assuming a “regional” accent meant someone couldn’t be popular, unless it was part of their brand. In mainstream media like the BBC, the legacy of “BBC English,” elocution, and perceived class of accents means that literally only certain voices are heard on air. Youtube’s revolution of the media should have changed this, but there was still an element of needing to be inspired by or understood by the US to get big. This drive for social media to be legible by US audiences, and the loss that that can lead to, is what I want to unravel here.
I’ve begun to notice people trying to have local conversations in a way that accommodates the US, or applying US narratives in a way that doesn’t always make sense. We accommodate US values, vocabulary, and ultimately, the US-made algorithms and platforms on which these public, social conversations are had.
In linguistics, there is a phenomenon known as code-switching. This is where a person or a group will change the way they speak depending on the group they are surrounded by. This might be polyglots changing the conversation to a common language they all share. It might also refer to a change in language dialect or style, such as moving from local slang to more formal English style when in academic settings, or indeed switching from AAVE to standard American (see also diglossia). There are several reasons for this, but often it can be about in-groups, social norms and power.
On the internet, I hypothesise, we code-switch to American English.
People live in the shadow/shelter of each other
I often see people take time on Twitter to translate a local term to US vocabulary. In fact, if social media users in the UK and Ireland don’t translate we often end up getting confused replies from North Americans.
Vocabulary mix-ups are one thing, from tap to faucet or mobile to cell phone, but I’ve often seen someone post a political point on Twitter and immediately get replies from Americans calling them politically charged names or saying something about voting habits, to which we have to patiently explain that we don’t live in the US and can’t vote for Democrats or Republicans. We simply have different political parties and live elsewhere in the world.
Having consistently experienced interactions like this, as well as a feeling of a default of US culture online, means that it’s just easier to pre-emptively explain for Americans to prevent confusion. Some sociolinguists link code-switching to positions of power, which I think any young person who has altered their use of language significantly for a school essay or meeting with a teacher will recognise. It is not that one way of using language is more proper, it is that there’s one way accepted by the people in power and one way that isn’t.
I think this asymmetry of online code-switching is evidence of a power imbalance, an assumed default to American English.
Now, code-switching isn’t a necessarily negative phenomenon. It can be a polite act and a courtesy to everyone in the room. However, I rarely see this code-switching operate in both directions. US twitter rarely takes the time to explain its obscurities to other English language audiences. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect Americans to know that level of detail about countries they’ve never visited, but it feels like that’s what is asked of us. Within a manageable limit, I think this increased awareness of other places can be a great thing, but when it is pointed in one direction, and difficult to turn off, it just makes me feel a little bit powerless in my online public spaces.
There are no fewer people than opinions
Early internet participants had ideologies of techno-utopias and techno-anarchy. They thought that freedom of information might dismantle the issues of the 20th century, while others recognised that the internet might just amplify the same issues. Since Web 2.0, and then the move towards social media, the vast majority of time online is spent on a few websites, largely from originally US companies. Tech companies based in the US include Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube, Snapchat, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Signal, Vimeo, MySpace, Yahoo even!
I think these platforms are deeply informed by American values, more specifically the values of Silicon Valley, consciously or not. Social media is fast-paced and new, impulsive, concise, informal. Wealth is valued and showcased, bragging is normal. Old information is rarely valued or revisited unless it’s on-trend. While maybe this is an inevitable and human response to information, I think if the paradigms of the platform creators were different, the outcome would be a different internet.
What if Kenyans had designed the internet? As Kenya is a collectivist society, perhaps verified people would need to have the most friends, or the most valuable interactions with their group or community. Maybe a Kenyan social media platform would include a way to create a profile for a family instead of an individual.
What if social media was designed for and by mainland Europeans, where multilingual speakers are in the majority? Maybe profiles would have a list of languages the user is comfortable with, in easy view, as badges beside their names.
These examples should illustrate that there are a myriad of ways the social internet might have been designed, and our current default is not the only way of doing things. Perhaps another culture might have done it differently.
What is nearest the heart, is as a rule, nearest the lips.
As it is, Youtube prompts me to watch US talk show hosts, Facebook asks me to fill out in-app surveys for US-owned companies, and Twitter is populated with tweets about contacting elected representatives who I’m not eligible to elect. All of it eclipses news of the elections, representatives, companies, and media which would be relevant to me.
Algorithms which govern social media remain opaque, but in general, posts with more engagement are treated as better posts. If everyone in Northern Ireland (N.I.) (~1.89mil) liked a tweet, and everyone in Nebraska (~1.93mil) liked a tweet, it’s probable I’d see the Nebraskan tweet first. It’s hard to prove that as there are many hidden variables at work in social media algorithms, but I do know that when news breaks in NI and in the US at the same time, I find out more about the US story first.
Due to the frequency of videos and posts, most politically engaged people I know have become well versed in the ins and outs of Democrats and Republicans, Congress, The Senate, and of course the Electoral College. Via my timeline, I have learned more in-depth details about US political systems than I know about my own. Unless I specifically curate against US news and politics, it dominates my feed, so I’m effectively learning all of this passively. However, I can’t vote or take any effective say in this public discourse. It can be incredibly frustrating to have so little autonomy over something I see unfolding every day, while simultaneously being given so little space to discuss the things I do have a say in with other strangers in the same boat.
Yes, I could mute the word Trump or unfollow all U.S. accounts, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable to do that, as I don’t want to close myself in an echo chamber. Equally, when I have logged out for a day because I find the US news too stressful, it doesn’t prevent the people around me, also online and using American social media, from updating me in each conversation about exactly what I’m missing.
Even a small thorn causes festering
Where the correction to American as default becomes not just frustrating, but actually dangerous, is when we come to political issues. For example, to properly tackle systemic racism, it is vital to understand the specifics and the cultural context of those systems.
In Northern Ireland, I hear people say “at least things aren’t that bad here” when they see stark and violent images of US police clearly motivated by race to hurt men, women, and even children.
However, recently a mixed-race member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland spoke out about his belief that the PSNI was “institutionally racist” and racism is a growing problem within the population. Consistently comparing our country to the dominant countries of America or Britain allows us to ignore our own problems.
Adopting discourse from another place as our own also allows us to completely ignore vital facets of our social conversation. To talk about discrimination in Northern Ireland and leave out the prejudice faced by the Irish Traveller and Roma communities is farcical. In Ireland, Traveller men have a life expectancy which is ~15 years less than that of a settled Irish man, with higher rates of suicide, and two-thirds of all Travelers have experienced discrimination. But if we do not have space for young people to develop our own local discourse around these issues, this generation will be hampered in attempts to fully address the inequality.
On top of this, Northern Ireland deals with the intersection of sectarian identities. The Good Friday Agreement (a democratic agreement that sought to act as a peace treaty and to build the beginnings of government) was signed only a couple of decades ago, and active army occupation ended in just 2007. With Northern Ireland still struggling to ensure stable, functional governance.
Every day here, people are still trying to deal with the legacy of conflict. For this generation of young people to ensure that peace is sustainable, and trauma is dealt with properly, we need space to have our conversations without being washed over by media from bigger countries. Young people in smaller localities shouldn’t have to rely on newspapers or other slow media which are not catering to us when we want to have these vital community conversations, we should have space to have them on social media too.
Americanisation of language, advertising, media- this isn’t new. What is new is that it’s hidden behind the idea that the internet is global. The internet is global, but “internet culture” seems to rely on Donald, Bernie, Barack, etc. more than is proportional. It’s not that memes never originate from other parts of the world, but why don’t I hear more about Nigeria, South Africa or India? These are all countries with enough English usage to ensure the language difference isn’t the barrier.
It’s worth noting that Northern Ireland is a relatively wealthy, majority white, western, majority English-speaking country, so if it feels difficult to get our voice heard online with all these privileges, I have no idea how much harder it might be in other corners of the world.
I want the social internet to accommodate local conversations and global conversations, but it seems heavily skewed to accommodate American ones first.
Do a lot and say little
The first step is always to have the conversation. Don’t imagine the design of social media as untouchable to the user. Discuss what works and what doesn't, document the failings, and re-imagine how you want these tools to serve you. We can build better tools, but we have to imagine them first.
The next obvious step is to switch or diversify your social media platforms, maybe to something more local to you if you can find it, or even make it yourself if you have the skill set. The frequent counterargument to this is the idea that big tech is so big that it is unsinkable. But there’s no system that we haven’t been able to change before if we wanted to. If systems fail us, we can and should alter them, or make new systems as we need.
There is a world of alternative social media platforms out there already. People tend to dismiss them and say they'll never be as big as Facebook, as though that isn’t a benefit too. It depends on what you want to get out of your social media platforms, but in my experience we just want a space to have a few private and public conversations, and some good memes. These things don’t require the roughly 2.8 billion monthly Facebook users. You probably only need 2-10 people you know for a social media platform to feel worthwhile.
You don’t have to persuade the whole world to move platforms, just a group chat.
Better sense than strength
If you are looking for a place to have community conversations, moving from hierarchical to distributed social media is one thing you can look into; there's a world of options, from Mastodon to Scuttlebutt. But if you are one for the more familiar and don’t want to reinvent the wheel, think about going old school. Maybe you run a community group or small charity. Facebook might seem the best place to engage with your community, but given the emphasis on algorithms, SEO (search engine optimisation), and paid ads, you might end up with a more accessible platform using just a blog, and by linking to a now retro webring.
Especially if your community group has any political element to it, it feels particularly dangerous that all of these pages are now centralised on Facebook. These dangers include state surveillance, censorship, stalking, or loss of control over private, important user information such as sexuality or religious beliefs. It only takes a small confusion in privacy settings to allow so much information to be shared with someone's friends, family, colleagues. This can be genuinely dangerous to an individual. Having conversations on a number of smaller social media platforms, or even by email, might be much less risky.
Most of all, I think we should think more carefully about how our public space is changing. We should discuss what we want from our public spaces and what we need for our discourse to take place. We should stop allowing companies with very little democratic accountability to change the landscape and features of our public realm and, in turn, our shared conversations.
We should be aware of where we are choosing the default option because it’s convenient and in that support, eliminating the chance to choose something else. Just as we are beginning to understand the importance of supporting small businesses and shopping locally so that everything isn’t wiped out by Amazon, we need to choose to support small apps and keep data and conversations separate instead of letting Facebook, Google or Apple swallow everything.
If you are American, be aware that you have a nationality online. That nationality comes with a certain cultural conversation, but don’t assume that perspective to be the default. Be willing to examine how your beliefs and ideas might be expressed differently in a different culture, and open your mind to how differently discussions might need to be made in other places.
For those of us who aren’t American online, perhaps we need to be less apologetic about our culture, explain less, display it louder and be more assertive about our identity. I worry though, perhaps that is in fact the U.S.A. style of reaction.
Don't start a quarrel or end a story [i.e. take the last word]
We believe in furthering the conversation on digital culture beyond this article. Here are a few resources from Dervla to get that started:
1. This Is Why We Need Public Spaces, Just Like The Ancient Greeks Had | Elmien Du Plessis
2. How the web lost its way – and its founding principles | Stuart Jeffries
3. As The US Exports Social Media, Its Values Lead To Culture Clashes | Katie Notopoulos
4. Google Next Billion Users | Google
5. Te Hoahoa Hou: Finding New Zealand Design | Zoe Nash
7. Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names | Patrick McKenzie