I’m in Brazil for the FIFA World Cup and experiencing online life as frequently as sparsely available bread crumbs of random connectivity. Prepaid mobile data plans, stadiums in the outskirts of major cities, and 60,000 people around you trying to express the instantaneous joy and grief of a soccer game can do that for a traveler. Thus, over the last four weeks and a half, I abandoned any form of written communications involving more than a couple of short sentences and limited myself to the world of micro communications in the form of tweets and Instagram pictures and videos. While I had fun doing that – despite my beloved Brazil suffering an unfathomable 7 - 1 beating by Germany – it became clear that the ideas I was conveying canned in 140-character chunks or 15-second videos often were not what I really wanted to say.
You may be thinking: duh, hello, the world realized that back in 2006, two World Cups ago. That’s true, of course, but 8 years after Twitter was launched, having millions of people communicating mostly via ephemeral snippets of text and images shaped the global communications into a broader, noisier and shallower world. We say lots of things now, but we have little depth. If tweets had colors, they would look like the old 3-bit palettes from early computers. Between black and white, you would have all of six different colours to choose from:
In the span of a dozen years or so, we went all the way from having a small number of publishers and millions of listeners to having millions of publishers and millions of pseudo-listeners. We nod to each other by liking and favoriting our exchanges, but we don’t know exactly what we are agreeing with. We live and think in a truecolor world, but we communicate using an 8-color palette.
The jury is still out on whether that is a good or bad thing, but this forced simplicity seems to be fostering a very polarized world, where you are either with me or against me. If you consume news via social media streams, you could be led to believe that there are no mid-tones anymore: you are pro-life or pro-choice, creationist or evolutionist, Heat or Spurs, Bush or Obama, Dilma or anti-Dilma, Neymar or Messi.
Social media, in its early Web 2.0 days, came with the promise of giving everybody a voice, the enabling of the long tail and the end of best-sellers. Some of that was in fact realized: you can find pretty much anything over the Internet today, no matter how niche it is. However, in its present form, rather than flattening the power law distribution of opinions, social media seems to be consolidating a dumbbell curve model, where almost nothing bridges the two sides of a discussion.
Social media urgently needs a bit of João Guimarães Rosa. He’s the Brazilian author of one of the best pieces of Latin American literature, “The Third Bank of the River”:
Beginning shortly before the turn of the last century, there was a noticeable trend towards the ambiguous in modern Brazilian literature. Writers such as Machado de Assis and Jorge Amado have both explored the use of the unstated and the forced compromise between extremes that have grown to be so crucial to the modernist movement. No Brazilian author, however, has mastered the compromise quite like João Guimarães Rosa, a man who was once described as not only leading, but preceding the reader “to a place where there is discord and cacophony under which there is a strange harmony…the third bank of the river…the land every soul craves for.”