The Illusion of Authority: An Analysis of User-Generated Online Media

Matt Kasson

Paper 1

The digital revolution has brought about a new era in information and education. To young generations, libraries are now nothing more than quiet areas to use their laptops. Gone are the days of meticulously searching for specific journal articles or books, now one is able to simply point and click online. However, the search for information is not by any means the only recently simplified task. The production of information is in many ways easier than its discovery with the aid of online tools such as and Youtube, and for better or for worse the common public is taking advantage of these resources relentlessly. Our physical and virtual realities are constantly becoming more intertwined, and the consequences of this for our lives in the midst of this influx of information are still unclear. As noted by Watson, “As users become simultaneously self-presenters, self-curators, consumers of others’ lives, and brokers of individual and collective histories, we enter a new age in which it is urgent to investigate how digital environments are reconstructing both the public spaces and the private intimacies of our networked selves.” (1)  While the free flow of information is often claimed as an inherent good, I believe that left unchecked open websites such as Youtube and Reddit still offer the possibility for manipulation and malevolent use.

On the website Youtube, all content is user generated in the form of video uploads. These videos are able to be anywhere from seconds in length to hours, and can be on nearly any topic imaginable. Many accounts have subscribers ranging in the tens of thousands, some in the hundreds of thousands, allowing them to reach incredibly large audiences instantly. Many accounts are for entertainment, other academic, but none are fact checked or reviewed in any manner. Because of this, both respected academic accounts and their amateur counterparts are technically equal in their availability and authority. Due to the freedom with which videos are able to be uploaded, there is much opportunity for manipulation as well. Due to many prior concerns, within the past week Youtube, “has banned content creators from directly tying up with advertisers and mandated its users to disclose commercial tie-ups before uploading a video.” (2) One would expect such a ban to arise only from necessity, which thus illustrates one of the websites major potential issues. The article goes on to write, “YouTube, however, allows content creators to earn revenues from sponsorships like simple product placements, text banner ads embedded in the content and content solely created around a brand.” (2) Therefore while affiliation with a sponsor must be disclosed, accounts are still free to gain sponsorship as they please. As is the case in the real world of marketing, these sponsors are then open to manipulate and influence the accounts as they see fit. Even in accounts that are unsponsored, the user who submits the video is able to post whatever information he or she wishes. Information that is incorrect, unfair, or without scientific support is still able to be posted. I therefore believe that the website Youtube cannot only spread ignorance and misinformation, and reinforce it as well.

The next website I will examine is that of Reddit. Like Youtube, the content on Reddit is 100% use-generated, and nearly any subject is able to be posted and discussed. It is described as, “…an aggregate social networking site where users, or Redditors, post links from the Internet, original content, and self-posed questions.” (3) I believe Reddit is an interesting case because on it, all accounts are completely anonymous. This allows users to speak their mind in the company of others, without risk of having their real identities “found out.” Like Turkle asserted, “The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.” (4) This “Goldilocks zone” is essential for users to feel completely comfortable sharing otherwise damaging or private information. However, this anonymity often comes at a cost. Without major repercussions for lying or other behavior, there is little to nothing stopping users from posting and propagating information however they see fit. One might assume that users would be inherently suspicious of such sites as a result of this, but in “The Digital Self” Watson shows how this may not necessarily be the case. “…the assertion of authenticity is crucial to certain users, such as those disclosing victimization or transgression, and to certain kinds of sites—those devoted to coming out, weight loss, illness, or grief, for example. Noting how a site deploys strategies for winning belief and where it invokes guarantors of authenticity can illuminate the complexities of virtual reality, even when an identity is partially or wholly fabricated.” (1) Reddit deploys the strategy of community in order to give its users the belief of authenticity. When faced with a particularly moving or powerful piece, scientific or personal, human beings are naturally inclined to believe it. While this may be a good thing 90% of the time, when this backfires and fails I believe it can be dangerous.

Another medium which I feel needs to be addressed is that of the social media site “Facebook.” Now one of the wealthiest and largest internet success stories of the modern era, Facebook has spread in popularity across every generation. On it, people are able now not only to submit their own content, but to share the content of major websites as well. New stories, opinion articles, all such mediums are now commonplace on anyone’s Facebook page, and I feel that this could have some unforeseen consequences. For instance, one of the most basic biological aspects of human beings is our innate desire and predisposition to form a pack or group with others. Often times this “pack mentality” is a good thing, it allows us to socialize and form common ground with people in a way which promotes social interactions. However, sometimes it is not a good thing, and can in fact be damaging. What social media sites such as Facebook allow is the rapid spread of idea, no matter how incorrect or altered they may people. Many things shared on Facebook are designed simply to enrage people, or start social movements based on emotions and not facts. If users are unaware of this, it can be very easy to get sucked into a seemingly innocent string of thoughts. Most of the time this is not a major problem, and such movements are able to simply fizzle out without making to large of an impact. However, if they do gain traction the amount of authority they can come to yield can be quite troubling. People often times have a very entrenched set of beliefs, which when reinforced can become even more polarized. Facebook allows people to gravitate towards others who share their same beliefs, and allows them to become further convinced that their opinions are the correct ones. Eventually, anyone who has a separate opinion is not only looked down on as “wrong,” but can become viewed as an enemy. However, this remains an extreme of the problem at hand. If properly handled and educated, people can avoid this kind of groupthink without falling victim to it.

While it may seem that these sites are at risk more so for manipulation than for a societal benefit, I do not mean that this is always the case. Indeed, sites such as Youtube, Reddit, and others have allowed information to spread and people to connect faster than any other time in human history. As the Association for College and Research Libraries wrote, “Whether observing new forms of scholarly communication and information sharing, learning what works and doesn’t work with marketing, seeing how users acquire information literacy skills, and how the Internet community advocates for information issues, Reddit has something for everyone and is highly relevant.” (3) Just because content does not come from a distinguished professor or peer-reviewed journal does not mean it is inappropriate for public view. For instance, these sites are still excellent for exchange of new ideas and opinions, as well as public discussion. One viewing of a comment thread on a common Youtube video will however convince someone that reasonable exchanges of ideas and opinions are few and far between. At the end of the day, these user-driven sites must not be the source of a person’s education. It is still essentially important that the common public is properly educated by professionals in the classroom. Once educated as such, the proper navigation of online channels such as Youtube and Reddit will become much less an opportunity for manipulation, and more for what they were created to do; the connection of humans to and with each other. This is one of the greatest strengths of our internet age. If people can use these connections to exchange information in a truly meaningful manner, our society can progress at speeds never before seen in the age of humanity. It is our duty to be aware of these pros and cons of the internet age at all times, and to use the power of social media appropriately. If we can, the sky really is the limit.


Works Cited

  1. Watson, Julie. “Studying the Digital Self: Five analytical concepts that can guide scholarship on visual lives.” The Chronicle 21 April 2014. Document.
  2. Dasgupta, Pritha. “YouTube bans content creators from tying up with advertisers without intimating the co.” Economic Times 3 March 2015. Online Article.
  3. Sanderson, Beth and Miriam Rigby. “We’ve Reddit, have you? What librarians can learn from a site full of memes.” Association of College and Research Libraries 2013. Online Article.
  4. Turkle, Sherry. Alone Togethe: why we expect more from technology and less from each. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.

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