A little Detail in Google Groups Reveals What Social Media is Really About

For months now I have been criticizing Facebook and blogging in general wishing that blogs wold be replaced by something more like USENET with its contextual reply feature. At the same time I noticed that some sites, like Reddit and Slashdot, did have some of the features that I wanted in allowing Markdown Format in replies, but at the same time that more than 95% of users did not use them. In addition, I noticed that these sites, particularly Reddit, were pretty useless for keeping track of a subject of threads. I found subreddits to not be particularly well formed or memomic. I began to wonder if a fixed topic hierarchy like in USENET newsgroups was superior to socially promoted topics on most blogs and social media sites.

Then, a couple of days ago I went over to Google Groups to have another look at the USENET feed it gets and to see if the interface for posting was improved at all. What I found there was telling and it helped me to isolate the critical differences between communication in social media and what it was in the hay-day of USENET. What I found was that all replies are to the first post of the thread and that you cannot reply to one of the other replies in the thread. This makes all the difference in the world and that reveals why social media discussions are so very much less powerful than USENET was.

I wondered immediately why Google Groups is run this way and even filed a query in one of their support forums for which I haven’t received a reply. People on the USENET have replied saying that I should get a proper newsreader and not use Google Groups, but that as far as I know there are very few free servers for text-only USENET. So why is Google Groups run as it is and what does this have to do with the rest of social media and blogging? The answer comes from Facebook’s use of its content. Facebook lookes at its users as marketers and the threads on its web site as marketing channels. A channel is owned by its originator and that person gets to set the agenda. The blog, itself, makes it hard for people to deviate from that and engage in the normal type of discourse, changing topics, introducing side issues, etc. People police themselves, self-censor, to avoid the friction the limitations of blogs impose on them. This is the intent. It is why Google Groups does not support reply-any, but only to the first post, reply-top. I am not saying that you can’t have a discussion on a blog, just that it is much harder and the content is much less rich than it could be. In fact most of what people say on blogs is ignored. I think that fact alone is contributing to the escalation of violence in society, people who need someone to talk to in more than platitudes, do not get served at all well by social media.

In a marketing channel the promotor wants to control and limit the conversations. He is de facto a moderator and rather than letting the readers respond and thinking about what is said, in other words, free speech, the channel is deliberately limited, possibly because the channel owners are charged a fee for their use of the channel. That may turn communication into marketing and monetize flow of ideas on the Internet, but it surely is not free speech and just because these companies own the channel and allow public access for free doesn’t mean that they can just suppress free speech to suit their business model.

At the very least they still use some public resources that are in the commonwealth, and thereby have an obligation to protect the rights of the public.  I am not saying that they cannot continue with marketing channels, but if they do they must provide some form of of open forum for free and speech. I have suggested that they should provide scaled NNTP servers and the type of interface in the newsreaders that serve USENET newsgroups. This can be text-only USENET and the impact on their networks would be much less than all of the images and streaming content they now provide. A blog interface will not suffice if it doesn’t at least support Markdown Format and the ability of users to change the topic line.

Neither the topic hierarchy of the topics should be socially promoted. The typology should be relatively static and neutrally structured.

I have said today that Google should face legal action for dumbing down its USENET interface in Google Groups and that it should be punished for trying to reduce free speech. I said that on Google Groups today as well as on Facebook. If I could start an action using a free-speech and human rights advocacy against Google, I would. We have the smoking gun of the desire by Google and other social media corporations to suppress useful free speech in the world.

Another area where this is all now crucial is addressing terrorism’s use of social media. In many ways terrorists are doing the same thing as marketing channels in preaching to self-selected communities that isolate themselves form different views. This was the media segmentation started by Ronald Reagan to give the Right Wing propagandists, such as Rupert Murdoch, the power to use wealth to buy channels in the broadcast media and bias them after the FCC allowed for more biased news and commentary.  If Homeland Security wants to address the terrorism problem in social media it should begin at the Federal Communications Commission not to censor ideas but to bring back the balance that existed on the public airways before 1980. This should also apply to social media companies and their desire to manipulate public discourse through social engineering and design. In fact not only should the managers of these companies be libel for damages done by their business strategies but that the engineers who knowingly implement the manipulative designs should also face legal sanction for coding them.

Bruce Salem

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