Social Insularity and the Not-So-Wide World Web

iPhone 4 by Yutaka Tsutano (Used under Creative Commons License)

When we type ‘www’ as part of a URL, we refer to the World Wide Web, this vast expansive network of data and information that provides a universe of information possibilities and the ability to learn about almost anything from nearly any point of view.

But we don’t.

Indeed, we might just focus on some very narrow things and actually make our world, psycho-socially at least, a little smaller. Although I don’t think Marshall McLuhan had this in mind when he referred to this web as a global village.

Take today’s announcement by Apple on the state of the iPhone 4 in addressing ‘antennaegate‘. At issue is an under-performing cellphone transmission antennae in the iPhone that has caused a huge stir in the tech media world – which, if you read enough of it, assumes is important to the world at large.

One might think that this antennae problem is significant enough to derail a company like Apple and that people, outraged at what the tech pundits and media types have exposed, would abandon the newest iPhone in favour of something else. As mentioned elsewhere, the numbers, as reported in Fast Company, tell a different story:

During the presentation Apple wasn’t afraid to air some dirty laundry: Including the return rate for its premier device, the iPhone. The 3GS had a return rate of 6%, and so far the iPhone 4’s is running at 1.7%. Jobs thinks this illustrates that the end user is pretty satisfied with the phone, and that there’s no real problem with the antenna in day to day use. Ignoring the spin on this point, the fact Apple was prepared to share this internal business data at all is very unusual–and those figures will become used and referenced as new industry standards. Also unusual: Normally super-calm Steve Jobs swore on stage when answering a question about the now famous, and discredited, Bloomberg report that alleged an Apple engineer gave Jobs an early warning about the antenna. Apple is serious about defending its iPhone 4, folks.

Apple also shared one more statistic: Three million iPhone 4s have been sold in three weeks. That’s an amazing, sustained, million units a week folks. And if you think that’s just the early blush of success and excitement, then you need to remember that at the end of July 17 additional nations will start selling the iPhone 4. Which means that sales rate is going to soar past two million per week, and then stay there for a long time yet. No matter that Apple loves its customers … this is proof its customers love it right back, and aren’t worried about the antenna

Judging by the media firestorm, which included tech blogs to mainstream publications like The Economist, this is a significant issue. But to consumers, it isn’t…at least not enough to stop making the iPhone 4 the fastest selling device ever. Here, we have a very vocal, connected and articulate group of passionate media advocates in the tech world making a small issue and gigantic one. While such mis-steps are rare for Apple, it is probably fair to say that the iPhone issue was minor in real terms to the average person. The problem here, is that this highly connected group of writers seems connected to itself, and not the wider public who, by their actions, are far less concerned about this issue of the antennae.

This insularity is not just a media issue, it might be an Internet issue as a whole. In a recently published TED talk from Oxford, journalist and internet commentator Ethan Zuckerman, pointed to data that showed that people are pretty much keeping to themselves online, within some varied social boundaries. More importantly perhaps, this insularity is distorting our perception of the world we inhabit, making us think the world thinks and acts a lot like us. But as Zuckerman states:

The world is much wider than we generally perceive it to be

In the text and slideshow of his talk, Zuckerman points to the fact that Brazil has one of the highest rates of Twitter usage in the world, something of a surprise to most of us non-Brazilians. He adds:

About 170 million people visit Twitter each month, and 19m (11.2%) are Brazilian. More than one in ten Brazilian internet users visits Twitter each month, which is a higher proportion than in most nations – of the big internet using nations, the only one with a higher percent of people using the tool is Japan.There are millions of Japanese and Brazilian people on Twitter. If that seems surprising to you, it’s because most of your friends online aren’t Japanese or Brazilian. Twitter conducted a phone survey that revealed a quarter of their US users are African American… which was pretty surprising to most American users, who assumed that Twitter was just used by nerdy white guys.

What Zuckerman points out is that we’re not getting out as far as the Internet can take us because we’re choosing to socialize in places we find comfortable (my words, not his). We’re not venturing further from where we sit — physically, psycho-socially, politically or anywhere, really.

In another TED talk, psychological Jonathan Haidt spoke about the moral differences between conservatives and liberals, pointing to the same idea in politics about how much distance there is between those who might be Democrat vs. those who identify as Republican in the United States.

The social networking technologies we have right now offer the opportunities to see the world and communicate with its residents. But it is the everyday social and psychological tools that require deployment if we are to do anything more with these networks than we could have done without them. Is the Internet really creating a World Wide Web or is it more of a louder, more convenient clique at a high school party?

Perhaps Jaron Lanier is more right than we first thought.

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