A recent lecture by British documentary-maker Adam Curtis explored the idea that, since the advent of the internet, all we have is our own experiences and our circle of friends and we don’t believe in the big stories anymore.

As these stories are increasingly perceived to be full of conspiracies they lead us to believe that it is no longer possible to make sense of the world.

Curtis argues that our inability to make sense of the world serves those in power very well. Although this isn’t a conspiracy in itself; in every age, technology, ideas and the framework of the time fuse together and power shapes it.

How technology shapes social norms

The growing advent of limitations on the amount of text displayed on social media sites (from the well-known 140 character limit of Twitter to the display restriction of the first 240 on Facebook comments), is increasingly pushing the social norm of reducing communication to the minimum number of characters.

As MrTeacup.org recently highlighted in a fascinating blog post looking at textareas, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as sites build tools that discourage users from posting longer comments.

Short posts have the dual advantage of encouraging more people to join the network (as they make less demand on our time) and also give the impression of a more active community.

To combat the problems of too many posts to sift through, these sites have started ranking users according to their social currency. While Twitter searches display tweets that have been re-tweeted the most and users with the most followers, Facebook has started using an algorithm that (in its own words) “shows users the most relevant comments from friends, friends of friends, and the most liked or active discussion threads”. Or, essentially, those people who generate a lot of comments and likes.

The idea that the internet would destroy the gatekeepers and create a new form of citizen-led empowerment is arguably being upended by a capitalist-driven need to rank users by the economic benefit they bring to a site.

In Curtis’s lecture, he argued that we need people to pull back from the internet and realise that our interactions still reflect the world around us.

This giant sandpit we’re playing in is surrounded by a framework which continues to shape and mould these tiny fragments of experiences.

Social media transmits the values and norms of the people who built (and continue to build) the sites we use and that’s why it’s important to understand how this is reflected in, and how it shapes, the conversations taking place within these networks.