For the first time in human history, there are generations that have known nothing other than the communication services of the digital revolution. Twenty years ago, our ability to talk to each other online was through basic email or bulletin-board like internet forums. The variety and depth of today’s communication channels, whether it be Google, Reddit or Twitter are a far cry from your Yellow Pages or Teletext. These new mediums have dramatically changed both work and social constructs for every generation. Online communication is so ingrained into work culture, where ‘the answering of email is rarely part of our job description, but more an underlying assumption of the functioning in nowadays’ organisational life.’ For its effects on our social life, all you have to do is look at your average screen time per week on your phone.
The Challenges Arising from Online Communication
John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney argue that there is still so much more room for development with the Internet but admit that it will be moulded just like any other commodity:
“technologies do not ride roughshod over history, regardless of their immense powers. They are developed in a social, political, and economic context. And this has strongly conditioned the course and shape of the communication revolution.”
Each new technology may be two-faced, potentially improving and degrading the human condition. This downside has mainly appeared in the manner of who controls the discourse. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, whenever a new way of communication has been invented, it has been monopolised by a select few. The newspaper tycoons of old like William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch could only dream of the power and control that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos possess over their consumers.
The ‘Fake News’ phenomenon is a major challenge that has arisen in the digital age. Although the spreading of misinformation is nothing new (think of tabloid/yellow journalism), it has hit an unprecedented scale with the rise of online chatrooms and social media. This has led to a breakdown of trust between businesses, media, and people. Internet bots spreading disinformation online have also added a new element to this phenomenon. Some reports claim that 15 per cent of all Twitter accounts are bots. Fake news stands for a fundamental shift in political and public attitudes to what journalism and communication represent and how people may obtain facts and information in a digitalised world.
Access to Online Communication
In 2016 the United Nations passed a resolution declaring access to the Internet a human right, putting pressure on governments to condemn internet shutdowns. The two primary characteristics of the original Internet were decentralisation and free, open protocols that anyone could use. How communication is packaged to the masses is a tale as old as time, and the consequences of this exposure follow a similar theme. There are repeating patterns in the histories of communication technologies when looking at ordinary mail, the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet. In particular, the typical story for each service is that quality rises, prices decrease, and usage increases to produce increased total revenues. At the same time, prices become simpler. Hopefully, one day this pattern will extend to the entire world.
From the birth of email to text messages and social media, online communication has evolved dramatically over a short period of time. Those lucky enough to have access to the Internet have a greater degree of control over what they read and say than before the digital revolution. But they also have to deal with new challenges when digesting information in the age of unrelenting content and tech monopolies.