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A Parallel World of

Electronic & Social Media

The Dilemmas of Social Media


The Internet started out as a means for university scientists, government researchers, and the military to communicate efficiently with computer networks.  It allowed them to exchange ideas and data quickly related to their research projects and findings.  Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the new Internet was paid for by the American taxpayer – we own it.  In its initial expansion, mostly through enthusiastic university users, it became recognized as a potentially universal public communications utility.  The early 2015 FCC ruling that it intended to classify the internet as a public utility was an important acknowledgement of that fact.

In just three decades, the Internet has come a long way, in both good and bad directions.  The proliferation of social media both enriches the potential for public and democratic communications and presents increasingly complex dilemmas.

A Short History of Social Media

Early on, students and faculty communicated via the Internet as a natural outgrowth of their scientific work on university mainframe networks.  But, the real break came with the invention of the World Wide Web by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who completed the first Web site in December, 1990.  Web sites proliferated rapidly as the HTML the Web ‘markup language’ allowed construction of graphical interfaces, internet site linking, and user browsing.

In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg and some fellow students at Harvard University launched Facebook.  They utilized the interactive and browsing capabilities of the Web as a medium for fully interactive social networking on the Internet.  Soon, a variety of other social-media applications flourished.  Twitter allows users to exchange short 140-character messages as well as organize and filter their ‘twitter feeds’ by interest groups.  LinkedIn, the dominant business-oriented social media site, facilitates users networking by their presenting, exchanging, and recommending professional qualifications and experience.  Many other social media sites followed, each with its own twist – such as video on YouTube, and photos on Pinterest.

Social media grew rapidly and were hailed as a boost to democratic communications. In an era when mass media were increasingly controlled by a small number of giant corporations, corporate interests have stifled public discourse.  Nearly all television, radio, and movies, even some music, were – and are –riddled with either advertising or “product placement,” or both.  From sit-coms to the Super Bowl, mass media of communications are inherently one-way and constrained by corporate ideological framing of content.  Little opportunity for the open exchange of ideas is allowed by the mass media operations.  Now, however, anyone and everyone could present her/his quirky ideas and images, unconstrained by any form of censorship, with the partial exception of child pornography, or so it seemed.

Political activists quickly recognized the potential of social media for political interest group communications and organizing.  Tech-savvy participants who helped get the word out and provide a medium for internal discussions and strategy aided both the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements.  The technology of social media matched the democratic thrust of these movements.  Some incorrectly attributed the origin of these movements to the social media they utilized so effectively.  Of course, this rationalization entirely missed the fact that these social movements arose from genuine social/political needs and aspirations.

The efficacy of Occupy and Arab Spring was demonstrated by governmental attempts to infiltrate them or shut them down.  No regime wishes to tolerate a social movement that challenges its base legitimacy, be it a military dictatorship or financial elite.  The use of mostly Facebook and Twitter was a definite benefit to organizing and coordinating protestors in various contexts.  Some of that communications has diffused after public awareness of these movements peaked and lost their geographic focal points.  This led some to conclude, mistakenly, that the movement itself has died out.  Social media continue to support their momentum.

Dilemmas of Truth and Relevance

Some critics lament the proliferation of misinformation and quackery through the social media.  There are nearly no institutionalized quality controls on the ideas or claims that are transmitted via social media.  Scientific facts compete on an equal footing with personal fantasies and political propaganda. “Climate denial” and the brutal “Islamic State” rogue militants in Iraq are obvious examples of the latter.

However, anyone who has read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, is quite aware that human irrationality was prolific far before social media.  The proliferation of pseudo-science, the celebrated but unverified accounts of UFO abductions pre-dated social media by far.  Neither the “channeling” of past lives nor imagined demons of whatever genre, required social media.  The lack of critical thinking and failure to judge claims on evidence instead of emotion, is the message here.  Electronic communication is merely the medium, albeit much more rapid than previous media have been.  Democracy does not work without education, nor does science.  Mass hysteria can be real, as history and sociology have demonstrated.  If social media are to become an effective utility for democratic process and exchange of real knowledge, education must be enhanced.  Human critical thinking in evaluating ideas and claims to knowledge will always be needed whatever the medium.

As the Internet ‘matured’ opportunities for advertising and marketing grew right along with public access to websites via commercial “Internet service providers” (ISPs).  Commercial interests from the largest corporations to neighborhood coffee shops began to recognize the exposure value of a “Web presence.”  Increasingly complex websites required professional design/development/maintenance, which needed to be funded.  The commercialization of social media seemed inevitable.

Public Communication & Deliberation or Commercial Marketing

At first, advertisers simply bought space on web pages for their ads, in hopes of reaching a wider audience.  But one of the characteristics of electronic communications is that all sorts of information can be tracked, analyzed, and used for targeted marketing.  The information available includes not only visits to a web page, but characteristics of the visitors and their computing, communicating, and even shopping behavior.  Such information management gave websites a powerful range of utilities to sell to advertisers.  All sorts of complex personal identity information, ‘consumer habits’ and assumed ‘preferences,’ are utilized to customize automated marketing to individuals.  That principle was easily extended to the users of social media.

Gradually, commercial content has crept into social media just like the rest of the World Wide Web.  Indeed, it has penetrated every “connected” setting of modern life.  Without popular objection, full spectrum corporate dominance of social media is likely to be achieved; it nearly has for the Web itself.  People everywhere will have to fight for both “net neutrality” and social media free of intrusive corruption of culture by corporate commercialization.  Otherwise, social media will lose their liberating potential and become just another means for cultural control by the corporate state.  In this sense, social media are no different from any other medium of societal communications.  They are just much faster and less subject to thoughtful reflection.  We must learn to use them prudently.

An unusual form of social media can be found at  This online participatory encyclopedia is “open source” in its construction and maintenance.  That is, anyone can contribute an article on any topic or edit/comment on or challenge someone else’s contribution.  Articles are developed socially.  No one writer has control or authority over any resulting product.  No encyclopedia should be the final source for any topic.  Nevertheless, one advantage of is that its information is far more up to date than that in printed encyclopedias.

Skeptics aver that for accuracy and unbiased writing, “experts” should be the final authority over content, not “ordinary” people.  But the process information vetting process is in certain ways self-correcting.  Authority is vested in the presentation of evidence and citing of sources, as well as the failure of others to produce stronger counter-claims.   Clearly, many contributors are expert in the fields for which they submit articles or offer revisions.  Nevertheless they may still disagree with each other’ conclusions on a matter.  Any statement can be challenged for bias, lack of evidence, or any other failure.  When legitimately differing conclusions are presented, they are included.  If disputes are unresolved in the normal editing process, a complete dispute resolution process can be invoked.  Readers are encouraged to contribute revisions, citations of sources, or other improvements.  This social editing process often resolves differences

As sociologists and historians of science are well aware, science is an inherently democratic process. It has checks and balances built into its procedures to weed out as many biases and errors as possible. is modeled in much the same way, but without fussing over authority or credentials of its contributors.  The focus is on content and its verification.  In a way, the social medium itself allows continual refinement and updating of information without the cumbersome cycle of formal peer review in the publication of scientific journals.  But Wikipedia is not a scientific journal; it provides basic information on the topics it publishes electronically, and the content is constantly checked and corrected by consensual validation.

The Future is an Open Book

For social media generally to work as well as, the participants will require effective critical thinking.  Effective users must partake in a culture of education and science, rather than succumb to personal fantasy and imaginary demons.  Of course, there is always a place in human affairs for fantasy, as long as we understand it as such.  But, when public policy and civic affairs are at stake, the democratic elements of science are essential.

The possibilities and potential problems of social media are endless.  Crowd-sourcing, web blogging, music sharing, social media strategies for business and endless variations on similar themes are found in various emerging forms of social media.  The image at the end of the Resources section indicates their expanding diversity and range.  Social media are not for everyone.  But if you wish to share information of any kind with others who have similar interests, or if you want to discuss just about any topic imaginable – and if your are ready to treat any and all claims to knowledge with the skeptical eye of a scientist – then there is probably a social-media site that will be useful to you.


John Hlinko, Share Retweet Repeat: Get Your Message Read and Spread.  New York: Prentice Hall, 2012.

Jan Zimmerman and Deborah Ng, Social Media Marketing All-in-One For Dummies. 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2013

The image below depicts the voluminous ways social media have evolved.

“Conversationprism” by Brian Solis and JESS3 – Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

— Dr. Robert M. Christie is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, and the Founding Director of the Urban Community Research Center, at California State University, Dominguez Hills.  He taught quantitative and qualitative research methods, social psychology of organizations, and conducted community research for 35 years.  He consults with non-profit community groups on matters sociological.

— Dr. Christie is an instrument rated pilot, a wood worker, and a freelance writer.  He blogs at on topics related to critical contemporary issues.  His passions are social change and the transformation to an ecological economy.


A Parallel World of

Publishing & Bookstores

The Challenge The world of publishing has changed radically in recent years.  Several technological, financial and organizational changes have led the industry to reconfigure itself.  In an environment where many businesses and professions have become dominated by giant corporations or international conglomerates, “independence” is rare.  The trend is clear.  In the book business, decisions are based more and more on financial rather than literary criteria.  Yet, independent publishing is not dead. The print publishing industry, like radio and television, has become much more vertically integrated.  Publishing decisions are made on the basis of the scale at which a book may be marketed with a likely high volume of sales.  Celebrity status of an author, which tends to guarantee a certain level of sales, trumps literary merit for financial value. Independent book publishers have found it more difficult to place their books in retail bookstores, for a couple of reasons.  First, the publishing industry giants can leverage more space, especially at the front of the store.  Corporate producers of heavily marketed “blockbusters” command more space and exposure.  Second, retail bookstores are pressured to prominently place books with greater quick-sale potential.  Fast turnover and volume sales trump quality content. Many independent bookstores have been driven out of business by large corporate chains offering heavy discounts on the latest top sellers.  The days of the independent local bookstore stocking works on the basis of literary merit or intellectual rigor seemed over until very recently.  However, new printing technologies provide new opportunities for local book publishing and selling. has become a dominant competing source, with cutthroat pricing, no sales tax, and often free shipping.   Local retailers have had more and more trouble moving their stock at anywhere near a price that covers costs, no less list price.  Yet, variations of the electronic technologies that made possible have also begun to enable more independent book publishing and sales possible.  Initially, Amazon dominated the growth of e-book sales.  Now, independent publishers and even some local bookstores are able to provide “books on demand,” cutting into costs such as inventory overhead.  Just as it seemed that independent publishing and bookselling were dying, a resurgence of both has begun. The term, “indie” has traditionally referred to creative work, whether film, art, or literature, that is independent of corporate control.  The threat to print publishing is not unlike other media of expression.   The real challenge for print publishing is to represent the full range of literary, social, political, and economic perspectives.  Independent publishers must survive for that challenge to be met.  Freedom from financial constraints on the editorial process is necessary.  Cultural freedom thrives on diverse publishing and bookselling.  Cultural conformity results from centralized financially driven book marketing. A Short History of Independent Publishing Various forms of recording language on cloth, paper, or clay, as well as woodblock printing have evolved for many centuries.  Serious publishing began when movable type and the printing press allowed “print runs” of multiple copies of a work.  The Chinese used the first known movable type around 1040 using porcelain.  Copies were produced in a relatively short time – compared to the pace of scribes’ hand copying manuscripts.  Guttenberg, using movable type in a printing press, circa 1439, achieved much faster printing. This also allowed employment of craftsmen and apprentices in printing shops.  The publishing industry was born largely for the benefit of the wealthy educated elites. Independent publishers flourished in the newly independent former colonies of England in American.  Leaflets, political pamphlets, and competing newspapers were printed widely before and after the American Revolution.  Subsequently publishing has gradually concentrated in ever larger corporate organizations.  Early radio nearly fell victim to being monopolized by a few large newspaper companies and was thwarted only by application of anti-trust legislation.  More recently, corporate takeovers and concentration of power have not been restricted. Independent publishing has experienced resurgence lately, even after major consolidation of much of the industry into large corporate conglomerates.  Indies labor under increasing pressure from heavily financed large corporate publishing groups.  The industry giants have vastly more resources and control marketing channels by virtue of their advantage over booksellers.  Yet indies are flourishing all over the country by finding niche opportunities that giant corporations either miss or consider to small to concern them. Small local or specialized presses, university presses, mid-size independent publishers, some e-book publishers, and self-published authors all publish independently.  The distinguishing feature of “indie” publishing is whether the publisher makes publishing decisions independently.  Despite the onslaught of corporate consolidation and the “financialization” of the industry giants, independent book publishing is thriving. A growing portion of the surge in the number of books published in recent years is composed of “non-traditionally” published titles.  These include “on-demand” printed books and self-published works, as well as titles from small traditional publishers.  As one independent bookseller put it, “With the recent advent and popularity of self-publishing resources, print-on-demand technology, and digital printing, the number of authors self-publishing their books (or working with small and hybrid publishers) has exploded in recent years.”  (  A thriving annual Indie Book Awards program now recognizes outstanding independently published books in over 70 categories. Today, authors seeking publishers have many more choices than in the past, but the path to such choices is not always clear.  Independent print publishers are not concentrated in New York.  They are smaller, dispersed around the country, and not as easily identified.  Alternative, often electronic means of publishing your work may not be as satisfying as a giant publishing house in New York publishing a printed book.  Then there are the hybrids.  “Print on Demand” publishing uses electronic means to print each copy on demand of the buyer.  Some bookstores now have that capacity. A vibrant independent print publishing industry is an essential element in building A Parallel World in which diverse ideas and cultural freedom thrive, encouraging socially and ecologically sound solutions to the problems created in the industrial era.
Resources: Collected Works Bookstore and Coffee Shop. Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group.  “What Is indie Book Publishing?” Imogen Reed, “Next Generation Publishing,” The Indie Book Awards. Wikipedia, “History of printing,”
— Dr. Robert M. Christie is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, and the Founding Director of the Urban Community Research Center, at California State University, Dominguez Hills.  He taught quantitative and qualitative research methods, social psychology of organizations, and conducted community research for 35 years.  He consults with non-profit community groups on matters sociological.
— Dr. Christie is an instrument rated pilot, a wood worker, and a freelance writer.  He blogs at on topics related to critical contemporary issues.  His passions are social change and the transformation to an ecological economy.

A Parallel World of

Independent Broadcasting

Finding the Value of Independent Broadcasting: Can It Thrive?

Almost everyone would agree that broadcast media have undergone enormous changes in the last few decades. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has overseen massive consolidations of both radio and television networks through corporate mergers and acquisitions. In a rather strange twist of logic, the perpetrators of these consolidations have argued that they allow the new and much larger corporate entities to provide the public with “more choices,” even “improve competition.” Well, more channels anyway…
But if we drive across the country and watch local TV news programs in motel rooms or listen to local radio stations on the road, we gain a different impression. We recognize that just like the strip malls and junk food joints, we are really in the same cultural place wherever we go – we are surrounded by the corporate consumer culture. We yearn for independent news, information, music and art. The good news: it is still out there, you just have to look for it.

Media Consolidation and Cultural Conformity

The communication of corporate culture saturates most of the nation’s broadcast channels. Little else gets “air time” in conventional broadcasting or cable TV simply because the vast majority of channels and stations are owned and operated by, or affiliated with, a very few very large media corporations. At the same time, new media have arisen due to the proliferation of the Internet and related communications technologies across the planet. The new media, however, have also helped independent broadcasting survive. Social media sites can now be found on the Internet for every interest imaginable. A great deal of streaming content is available from more and more sources.
Back when television came on the scene, many expected radio to die. They were wrong. Radio lives on, though much of it has been gobbled up by those same media conglomerates. When the Internet’s World Wide Web exploded with new social media Websites, including video, television seemed doomed – wrong again. It has simply been digitized and moved to cable and satellite transmission technologies. A few local stations still transmit programming over the airwaves. The giant multimedia conglomerates continue to scramble for control of every form of media and content. The taxpayer-funded government-developed Internet is now inundated by profitable marketing schemes “embedded” in many Websites and most social media sights. The line between real content and sales pitches is increasingly blurred. As Websites incorporate “context sensitive” advertising, we see advertising tailored to our presumed personal “preferences” on pages we visit. Communications technologies are more and more integrated with sophisticated personal-data-driven advertising technologies across multiple “platforms.” Yet independent broadcasting is still alive and may yet thrive.
In the post Walter Cronkite era, Network Television News divisions became part of the Entertainment divisions of giant media conglomerates. Mergers, acquisitions, and vertical integration of content and distribution have resulted in the dominance of communications by very few very powerful media companies. Information and entertainment have become confounded, resulting in “infotainment,” a dumbed-down trivialized form of “news” meant to entertain and distract rather than inform. Any real democracy depends upon a well informed citizenry. That is what makes beleaguered independent broadcasting so important.
In Cronkite’s time, the news divisions had their own budgets, which were independent of advertising revenue. Those budgets were driven by the need to compete for the latest headlines and best coverage of events. The system was not perfect, but it allowed some independence of news divisions from direct commercial control of content. Without much direct pressure to please advertisers, news programming could be relatively responsive to events of the day. Each major network maintained its own correspondents around the nation and world, competing to headline the latest important events. Local stations had local reporters who produced most content for their news shows. Today, independent broadcasting fights an uphill battle for band-width and for an audience as the economics of content production force many local stations to “affiliate” and accept canned content from the giant media corporations. Independent broadcasting stations are not always easy to locate. We need to know where to find their outlets.
News media consolidation meant loss of independent international correspondents as well as reduction in local and regional reporting staff. News became increasingly developed by centralized operations more tightly controlled by corporate headquarters with advertising revenue as a primary value driving content. Centralized content is now distributed widely for local broadcast, often under the guise of being “local.” All this happened over the latter half of the twentieth century. Some will remember Paul Krassner’s biting sarcastic commentary in his small satirical newsletter, The Realist, in its heyday in the 1970s. He called the misguided corporate shaping of broadcasting, “disinfotainment.” The term, of course, is an amusing conjunction of “disinformation” and “entertainment” – distorted information meant to entertain and distract. The point, of course, was that information was now being distorted to serve the commercial interests of the corporations that controlled it. Informing the public had been replaced by entertaining the masses, thereby neutralizing the people’s role as informed public citizens.
One valuable resource for breaking out of the orbit of restricted information provided by the corporate media is called Project Censored. It was started in 1976 by Dr. Carl Jensen at Sonoma State University in California. The project began as a media research program for students to develop media literacy and critical thinking skills and to recognize news media censorship. It has since grown to provide annual reports of stories censored by the “mainstream” media. The project also includes weekly radio broadcasts to highlight important links between a free press, media literacy, and democracy.  These broadcasts air Fridays from 1-2 P.M. Pacific Time on KPFA Pacifica Radio (San Francisco Bay area), and are syndicated nationally on over 20 radio stations. The project publishes an annual book summarizing all the important stories that were ignored or censored by the corporate media that year. It also maintains archives of previous years on its Web site.
The extreme concentration of commercial broadcast media has caused corruption of journalistic integrity to an obscene extent. The ethics of journalism have been taken entirely away from the individual journalist. Decisions on content, perspective, and analysis are made in corporate boardrooms. Investigative journalism is bad for advertising revenue; it too often exposes corporate corruption and informs the public of its anti-democratic consequences. As Robert McChesney has demonstrated in his book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, and other writings, the dominance of commercial broadcast media by a few global media corporations has helped realize the goal of the wealthy few to limit popular democracy. As now structured, the concentrated commercial media serve the needs of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, which are in opposition to the political and intellectual freedom of the population. Their power precludes easy reform. Only independent alternative forms of media can counter that power with communications in the public interest.
— Dr. Robert M. Christie is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, and the Founding Director of the Urban Community Research Center, at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He taught quantitative and qualitative research methods, social psychology of organizations, and conducted community research for 35 years. He consults with non-profit community groups on matters sociological.
— Dr. Christie is an instrument rated pilot, a wood worker, and a freelance writer. He blogs at on topics related to critical contemporary issues. His passions are social change and the transformation to an ecological economy.


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