Just two days before the Ethiopian Airline flight crashed and ended the lives of 157 people, I was teaching a Tutorial Class of Year 2, Media Studies, where we discussed the ‘Algorithm Culture’ and how it’s shaping communication in the social media era.
As I observe the outpouring of grief for the loss in that crash of Professor Pius Adesanmi, one of Nigeria’s brightest young minds, I understand the need to honour the soul of the departed, but the lessons I taught in that Tutorial class will also be useful for Prof’s numerous online friends.
The course, of which I am taking a Tutorial Class, ‘Texts, Processes of Reception and Audiences,’ encourages the students to critically reflect on theories and debates about audiences as well as their relationship with the media. In the social media era, concepts like algorithm and how it shapes the network publics, communication and relational power are central to the students understanding of media audiences.
So, for this particular week, our discussion centred on how algorithm, the computer programming that helps social media to filter, rank and organize the content we see each time we log on, as well as data mining, have become key to the business model of the likes of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.
The mastery of the algorithm culture or this commodification of personal information, has prompted comparisons of these companies to the oil companies, which once dominated the global economy and big date to the new oil.
Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft achieve profits by selling targeted advertisements, based on algorithms tracking users interests and behaviours. They maintain their dominant positions by engaging in constant, real-time surveillance of users. If you’re observant, you would have experienced this one way or the other as adverts for items you checked out on a shopping site suddenly pop up on another even when you have exited and closed the first site.
They commodify users’ digital labour or online activities, such as checking an item on a shopping site, and status updates by selling ad space through algorithmic auctions.
In trying to make sense of the air crash and the outpouring of grief on social media, I am also trying to reconcile the tension between online visibility and privacy. It’s never going to be a straightforward thing for me. I understand Prof. was highly visible on social media, was mentoring a lot of people and therefore, many are struggling to accept that he’s gone. Regardless, I am also struggling with questions: ‘when are we going to allow his family the quiet space to mourn him?’ does the constant reminders, as friends share his old posts help or harm his family’s healing process?’
I probably would not be thinking this way but for new levels of awareness of how social media works. Until now, social media platforms were just new channels of communication but coming into these new levels of awareness, I understand that being visible through social media can both complicate and enrich our lives.
Social media networking sites like Facebook and social media technologies like Twitter offer new ways of engagement that have collapsed the walls of privacy, sometimes with terrible consequences. Henry Jenkins captures it well when he says, ‘when people take media into their own hands, the results can be wonderfully creative; they can also be bad news for all involved.’
For me, herein lies the irony. The thought that we would be willing to trade off a slice of our privacy for a chance to make ourselves ‘visible.’ The culture of sharing that is one of the tenets of the convergent media environment may be fraught with minefields, but Manuel Castells’point, that, ‘In our society, the protocols of communication are not based on a sharing of culture but on the culture of sharing’ is useful here.
The new environment has given us ‘power’ to determine what we create, remix, share, anytime we want and with those we choose. True, in the social media environment, ‘the media are no longer what just what we watch, listen to or read – the media are now what we do.’ Oh! How we enjoy the newfound freedom, to do away with the middleman and reach out in our network. Never mind that I once performed a similar role in a newspaper.
From what I know now, the argument that ‘when people assume you share everything, they don’t ask about what you don’t share,’ for me, sounds frightening even in the algorithm culture.
A tribute for Prof., published in the Washington Post, quotes him as having written the following epitaph in 2013 following a challenge from Nigerian writer Cima Nwokolo: “Here lies Pius Adesanmi who tried as much as he could to put his talent in the service of humanity and flew away home one bright morning when his work was over.” So, no doubt, he served humanity and was a citizen of the world, but the ‘framing’ of the event of his death in such a tragic way may just be more harmful to his immediate family far more than anyone has cared to think.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I strongly think we might be helping Profs. Immediate family more by remembering them in our private prayers, rather than trying to outdo ourselves with the sharing of photos, images, and videos that are likely to re-open wounds.
True, in the age of social media, tragedy, and controversy travel fast. It’s why people would rather do live videos of an accident scene rather than help out or of fisticuffs rather than playing the peacemaker. Two of the five main reasons why people share what they share on social media focus on the self. When we choose what we share, we’re either trying to define ourselves online or doing it just for self-fulfillment. Either way, we’re being selfish. The other three reasons are, to support a cause, to stay connected to friends and to bring valuable content to others.
With or without those photos, images, and videos that are being shared online, Professor Adesanmi would continue to be remembered by young academics, writers and many others he inspired across the African continent. Each time they lived life as proud Africans, committed to merit rather than the mediocrity he spent a lot of time criticizing, they’re paying tribute to him. I think that’s what we should aim for – work in our small corners to build a Nigeria and Africa like the one he preached in his lifetime.
Olaniyan is a journalist, media communication expert and teacher