Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.
When I write, I want people – an audience – to read. I want the content I produce to matter. I want it to justify its own existence.
That’s a tall order. In 2016, we were already complaining about ‘drowning in content’ – there’s a lot of competition out there. Worse, a lot of it is very, very worthwhile. There is more opportunity than there has ever been for everyone, no matter where they are, to convey their thoughts and experiences to the world, and there has never been an absence of crises to necessitate the sharing of new ideas and new perspectives. With so much content already out there and always being produced – why do we need to contribute more noise?
More importantly, why do I need to contribute more noise? So many voices and perspectives have been kept silent and suppressed for so long. As we finally pay substantial attention to their issues and their pain, how can anything I produce be more than a second-hand treatment of the issues? Consumers have limited time with which to consume, and too many choices for consumption. How can I justify creating more content when I know the voices that most urgently need hearing are the ones with which I will compete and from which I will distract?
One aspect of this idea is well encompassed in the genesis of the #ownvoices movement, created in 2015 by Corinne Duyvis, which highlights stories whose creators and protagonists share a marginalized identity. The movement wants to amplify the voices that bring relevant lived experience to the issues they are writing about, recognizing that these voices have historically been drowned out by the voices of more privileged creators with the more limited perspectives of outsiders.
Another aspect is the “democratization of information publishing”, as Dr. Paul Resnick describes it in a quote from a prophetic turn-of-the-century piece in the NY Times. The article describes the rise of ‘Expert Sites’ on the early internet, where users would ask and answer questions. These sites, and their modern social media descendants, create a common problem. If everyone can contribute to every conversation, how can you pick out the real experts from the poseurs and the well-meaning masses? On issues like climate change, coronavirus, or mental health, the distinction could save lives.
When anyone can speak to everyone, can we ask who needs to be heard? We can talk about Indigenous reconciliation or environmental injustices as much as we want, but I would contend that on these topics most of us can contribute far less than we can learn. But in the learning process, the production of content might, in fact, be part of the solution, not the problem.
A Chinese Proverb: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I write and I understand.” By producing content – regardless of its format – we are engaging with the issues that we need to comprehend. This is a more active form of participation than many of the other behaviours we label as performative action, such as ‘liking’, re-blogging, or signing a petition. In producing content, we solidify and streamline our understanding of the issues we are engaging with, contextualizing them against our own experiences and ideologies. This intensive interaction reshapes our mindsets – and the ideas we engage – to better reflect one another.
This understanding-enhancement process has the potential to be a healing process, too. Overexposure to negative news has a tangible negative effect on our mental health, which is exacerbated in people with a predisposition to depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Unfortunately, media organizations are incentivized to focus on emotionally resonant or shocking content in order to generate more engagement. We can choose to separate ourselves from this media, but our world affects us even if we choose to ignore it, and ignoring the suffering of marginalized peoples or the threat of global crises like climate change can be difficult to justify. If we must face this negative news and we experience the corresponding deleterious effects on our mental health, then the contextualization and clarity we can achieve by putting our own thoughts ‘to paper’ can, for some of us, be beneficial. In their review of the research into writing therapy as a tool for general practice, Dr. Mugerwa and Dr. Holden suggest that “it is also possible that development of a coherent narrative over time results in ongoing processing and finding meaning in the traumatic experience”. Our world can seem confusingly disconcerting, and being able to make sense of it just a little more might be a worthwhile endeavour.
If the motivation for producing content is self-improvement, what is the purpose of sharing it with an audience and adding to all that noise? In an increasingly polarized ideological landscape, dialogue might be a means unto itself. If the recontextualization of ideas and issues within the contexts of our own experiences can be a healing process for ourselves, then the contextualization of ideas within the shared and distinct experiences of many people can perhaps be a healing process for a community as well. At the least, it may provide us with the ‘missing pieces’ we need to further our own contextualization of the world.
However, in an ideological landscape so polarized, the production of content may serve a more pragmatic purpose. Social media is the battleground for an ideological war in which we are all soldiers and each of our words is a weapon. The frequency with which an idea is repeated can improve its virality, and the more often that people are exposed to an idea the more convincing it can be; in the competition against bots and misinformation super-spreaders, the importance of the illusory truth effect in bolstering the prevalence of any ideology cannot be underestimated. Additionally, when we contribute our recontextualizations of the ideas we are trying to understand to the broader discourse, we are not just making these ideas louder, but we are also making them more multifaceted, more nuanced, more diverse, and more inclusive. Our reframing of a particular idea may reshape it into the form that someone else needs to finally understand it within their own experiential context.
If we’re fighting for the recognition of good ideas generated from informed peoples and lived experiences, then we have a moral obligation to add our voice to that fight in whatever capacity it will be most effective. But, we also need to be mindful that our voice and our uninformed perspectives are not overpowering the voices of those whose perspectives are most critically informed on the challenges we’re trying to overcome. This requires a balance in not only what content we are producing, but also how we are producing it, and how it interacts with the content around it. I don’t have the answers, but there are experts out there who do. Let’s listen to them.
Duyvis, C. (n.d.). #ownvoices • Corinne Duyvis. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.corinneduyvis.net/ownvoices/
Gregoire, C. (2015, February 19). What Constant Exposure To Negative News Is Doing To Our Mental Health. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/violent-media-anxiety_n_6671732?ri18n=true
Guernsey, L. (2000, February 03). Suddenly, Everybody’s an Expert. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/03/technology/suddenly-everybody-s-an-expert.html
Hasher, L., Goldstein, D., & Toppino, T. (1977). Frequency and the conference of referential validity. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 16(1), 107-112. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(77)80012-1. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://web.archive.org/web/20160515062305/http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/hasher/PDF/Frequency%20and%20the%20conference%20Hasher%20et%20al%201977.pdf
Liptak, A. (2018, October 12). A military expert explains why social media is the new battlefield. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/12/17967544/likewar-social-media-pw-singer-interview
Mugerwa, S., & Holden, J. (2012, December). Writing therapy: A new tool for general practice? Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505408/
Pierce, D. (2017, June 03). We’re Drowning in Content. Recommendations Are What We Need. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.wired.com/2016/04/youtube-app-redesign-recommendations/
Image created and owned by Brendan Sheppard.