Note: This is a transcript of a recent podcast episode, moving the content from that one-way medium to this more two-way Medium. Any irony is intentional.
Siloization – ˈsī-lō-ə-ˈzā-shən : the process of isolating a group apart from others especially in ways that hinder…
Hello, how are you today?
Even if you had replied to me, I wouldn’t be able to hear you because this is a podcast, and a podcast is a one-way communication medium. It’s like TV. It’s like radio. You have someone speaking, and a lot of people can hear the person who’s speaking, but you can’t respond to the person who’s speaking. It’s a one-way medium. A telephone or, goodness forbid, we actually talk face-to-face, are mediums through which we can have a two-way meeting in which we can actually interact.
A So-called Expert’s Worrisome Claim
I mention this because recently I saw a news story in which someone — who apparently is an expert on social media and new tech communication techniques — was saying how all these young kids — of which she was not one — they don’t want to be on Twitter or Facebook, where they’re interacting with people. They want to just look at content on sites like TikTok, because they want to see what experts have to say.
Now getting past the risible statement of “TikTok is filled with experts” for a second, look at what is being said here, that instead of people actually talking with each other, young people just want to take in content.
This is a very interesting step back to a previous time, because I’m old enough to remember when social media started back 15 to 20 years ago when a new type of interaction actually happened. One of the great hopes of social media was that it would allow people to talk more with each other. Of course, a lot of people were decrying how it becomes a communication in the virtual realm, not a communication that is face-to-face, and that was this horrible thing, some people said. Well, yeah, it is kind of a horrible thing, in a sense, although I really like being able to talk to people on other continents without having to actually fly there to talk to them face-to-face.
But it is a false idea that, as this expert claimed, somehow TikTok and sites like Mastodon are a replacement for Twitter and Facebook. The problem with these sites is that they are taking us back to the siloization of humanity. That’s really my concern here and it’s been my concern for a while now as a philosopher, about how people are not communicating with each other.
Now, this is an old problem. First though, let me explain what siloization means. It’s a dictionary term, you can look it up. Siloization is the process of isolating a group apart from others, especially in ways that hinder communication and cooperation. Siloization as a term is mostly business jargon with “silo teams” referring to situations in which teams or departments within a business or an organization do not communicate with each other and don’t know what each other are doing.
Almost always, this is a bad situation in which communication and cooperation are absent. People are duplicating their efforts and efficiency and productivity suffer. Effective organizations need to avoid siloization to enhance productivity. Ask any efficiency expert, any organizational management expert, and they will tell you that yes, siloization is a real problem.
Outside of a business context, “silos” is a new term for an old phenomenon. Another term for it, now laden with racial connotations, is “segregation.” I’ll use “siloization” to be more neutral and encompassing. Humans are social animals, but that socialization has limits. Human groups have a penchant for isolating themselves from others and not communicating with others. Siloization may be as old as civilization itself. From ethnic neighborhoods to partisan newspapers to social media, humans have formed silos into which they have stuffed themselves or others. Silos of humanity can have softer or harder walls, but all silos hinder communication and cooperation. Indeed, that is their purpose.
Siloization Past — A Very Brief History
Siloization probably began based on differences in culture and language. Immigration has always been a human activity and people in foreign cities benefit from living with people who speak the same language and share the same customs. But not all siloization was voluntary. The most infamous example of involuntary siloization is when Jews were frequently forced to live in segregated communities beginning in the early Renaissance. Jewish people were literally walled off from others. In some cases, for their protection; in most cases to be kept out of the sight of those who imagined themselves superior to Jewish people. Similarly, the United States and South Africa committed the atrocity of enforced segregation of black people causing myriad further injustices.
As literacy and communication technology facilitated the sharing of ideas, people could increasingly silo themselves based on political and social ideologies. The printing press greatly expanded the reach of ideas. It also expanded the potential for printed media to be a tool for propaganda and the creation of ideological silos. For many years in the United States, newspapers used to be openly funded by political parties, and for decades after, newspapers were still deeply partisan in their coverage. The newspaper you bought and read depended on your political allegiance. With a possible exception in the post WWII period, the idea of a neutral fourth estate has always largely been an unrealized ideal. People, when given a choice, tend to gravitate toward media that tells them what they want to hear, rather than be challenged by facts and different ideas. Media corporations have been happy to oblige and manipulate that sentiment.
Today, the human tendency toward siloization persists, but one difference is how much easier it is for people to self-segregate into silos based on ideology. Never before have people been so free to go beyond the limits of geography and read, listen, and see other people and their ideas. Alas, being all too human, many people seek out only people like themselves.
Many radio stations, cable news networks, and Internet Web sites offer a narrow ideological worldview. As just mentioned, a biased media is hardly new, but technology has enhanced the age-old fear of the Other and the creation and maintenance of silos. Traditional media — print, radio, and television — is a one-way, top-down dispersion of information. It can be and has been used to form silos based on political ideology.
United States talk radio, especially in rural areas, is dominated by right-wing trash talkers who rail against the imagined evils of, well, everyone and everything different from the white monoculture. Right-wing radio creates a subculture of “trust no one but us.” It’s a great business model. Right-wing radio fits into a larger trend, pushed by right-wing interests, to polarize the political discussion in the United States. Political silos of “us” and ”them” have come to dominate the landscape.
Social Media Siloization
We could go on about how moneyed interests influence attitudes through the media. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of how little prompting humans need to engage in siloization. Humans are social animals, but they willingly limit their socialization to like-minded people. Nowhere is voluntary siloization more evident than in social media. It is as if social media was custom built for it.
The Internet offers vast possibilities for communication. Tragically, it seems that few people take much advantage of these opportunities, Instead, humans do what humans have always done: self-segregate into silos of their own groups. Part of this is human nature. We predominantly search for and take in topics that interest us. Web sites and forums dedicated to birdwatching are pretty much only going to be frequented by birdwatchers. Someone who doesn’t care about fashion isn’t going to interact with Web sites and forums about it.
Of course, most people spend their time on the Internet swiping through social media sites. Social media corporations, by accident or by design, provide humans with the tools to erect their own personal silo walls. And boy, do humans take advantage of them. On the one hand, social media has tools of inclusion. You connect with people you like, and you can see their posts. On the other hand, social media has tools of exclusion. The social media sites show you only content from those people you have let into your silo. You only see content from outside your silo if you actively search for it, or if someone reaches out to you. Even more, if anyone reaches out to you, you can slam the door of your silo in their face. It’s called “blocking.” It’s erecting virtual walls around your silo.
Some people use blocking on social media to get rid of trolls. To be honest, most people use blocking to keep other viewpoints and ideas out of their personal silo. It’s inherently antagonistic. Frell, people brag about how many people they’ve blocked and have blocked them. People include in their profile how ready they are to block anyone who expresses disagreement with them. Such arrogant rudeness would be unacceptable in real life, but it is a norm on social media.
Social media is a land of silos, a land of willful ignorance. And silos create echo chambers. Hiding in their silos, people only hear that with which they already agree. Their opinions are never challenged, their false ideas are never corrected, and they can put out of sight those “horrible” people who think and act differently. They can hide comfortably in their silo away from their fear of the Other. People in silos don’t learn about other people, don’t even have to interact with other people. They are happy with this state of self-segregation.
Silo behavior harms a company. Silo behavior is harming our society. Conversation has died as people have retreated into their social media silos and echo chambers. Worse, social media silos are filled with memes spitefully attacking those outside the silos. People silo off others out of prejudice and their silo echo chambers reinforce their prejudices.
Siloization — Two worlds, both wrong
Social media, the corporate owned news, and political parties have vested interests in maintaining the siloization of the populace. It’s good for business. It’s good for political power. It’s so convenient because people need so little encouragement to arrange themselves in silo teams. Team Democrat versus Team Republican. Team Leave versus Team Remain. And on and on. Maintaining the silos are what matters most, not solving problems or ever daring to compromise with the Other.
Now, whenever an event happens or a situation presents itself, there are two dominant political interpretations of what is happening from two sides: “left” and “right.” Both sides insist that their interpretation is correct and the other is wrong. Their silos’ echo chambers constantly reinforce that narrow view. Two worlds. Both wrong. And the vested interests maintain the division of that siloization.
But truth can be discovered only by actively searching, continually questioning, and persistently communicating with other people. Silos are antithetical to the search for truth. Silos hinder communication and make justice difficult. Only when we take courageous steps outside of our own comfort zones and travel to where other people exist, think, and feel, can we hope to come to any kind of meaningful truth.
Only by demolishing our silos can we be fully ourselves.
The New Wave of Social Media Siloization
So that brings us back to the news story I saw by the so-called expert of social media phenomena in tech. The reality is that there was this opportunity, and there still is this opportunity, for social media to facilitate communication. Twitter kind of did that. Facebook kind of did that. You could interact with people.
There is this trend toward isolated silos, which is found in TikTok, Instagram, Telegram, Mastodon, and all of these other sites too numerous to name that allow you to even more easily than in Facebook and Twitter to isolate yourself.
Mastodon has been seen as this alternative to Twitter. But the problem with Mastodon is — and maybe this is why some people prefer it — it is constructed of silos from the get-go. You have to join a private server. You have to be invited into this private little silo. And then you can see and talk only to people within those silos and not be bothered by that evil, nasty reality of other people.
You can kind of reply to TikTok posts or reply to Instagram posts, but there’s no real communication possible. You can’t really have a conversation there. And the platforms are designed to basically be a one-way communication.
Certainly, back in the time when there was only TV and radio, though that still exists too, this was a one-way communication medium. Of course, you could write in, or you could phone in and say, “this is what my reaction to your thing.” Today you can go to social media of course and say, “I didn’t like that TV show,” or “I like that TV show.”
But TikTok is watching people dance and do silly things and eat things and do stuff like that. To pretend that they’re experts is, like I say, a little disingenuous, but they’re people who are engaging in, yes, a democratized one-way medium. Anyone can do anything. And they do. They do all kinds of silly stuff with which you can sit there and watch like on TV.
That’s what Facebook has been derided as, interestingly, as a platform on which people go onto Facebook and say: “Oh, hey, I had a muffin today.” “Hi, I went to this nice fancy restaurant today.” Or “I went to this vacation spot.”
Is Facebook just people showing off? But then TikTok is just people showing off. Instagram is just people showing off. It is silly to say, as the so-called expert said, that TikTok is somehow an advance because young kids are going more in that direction because they want more privacy. When you say they want more privacy, that means they don’t want people seeing what they have to say. They so not want to have to interact with other people.
Ruled by Corporate Algorithms
Now, I’m a very introverted person. My wife can verify that she’s pretty much the only one I talk to in life other than my students, of course. I get all the social interactions — that’s two-way interactions — I need from my students, dozens of students each term and my wife. Oh, I talk with my mom, too. Hi mom. She can’t talk back right now because this podcast is a one-way medium.
If I want to have a two-way conversation with my mother, I could use a phone or I could use email, you know, email. Oh, yeah, the kids are way past email, the so-called experts say. Email is so passe. Must be overly two-way or something like that. And I’m sounding like an old crusty man here yelling at clouds. Damn cloud. But the reality is that Twitter interestingly, has that possibility for two-way communication.
If the algorithm allows it, I mean. One of the reasons why I left Facebook years ago was because the algorithm changed to make it almost impossible to interact with people and see what other people are doing. They feed you the content that Mark Zuckerberg wants you to see.
There was a social media music site that I will not name that years ago I was part of because I run World Fusion Radio in case you didn’t know. This social media site used to be this wonderful site where you could post the music that you play, which was perfect for a radio station like mine, and you could then interact with people. People could talk to you. People could do things with you in terms of: “Hey, how about this song? Have you heard about this artist?” It was wonderful. I found so many new artists on that site who are still played in my radio station today.
But then they changed it because it was bought out by a big media corporation. It was a typical startup — two guys, basement or garage sort of thing. They started up the site, built it into something big until one of the big media corporations found it and said, “hmm, we could use this to push our own content.” They bought and they removed the wonderful features to help people find each other and talk with each other and turned it into a much more of a one-way communication vehicle to promote the music they controlled.
And here we are. I left. Lots of people left. Their numbers fell in half within a month, but they didn’t change. It remains a one-way platform ruled by their corporate algorithms.
Elon Musk and Twitter
People are understandably concerned about what Elon Musk will do to Twitter. And I doubt that anything substantial will change. I’m sure he will do some new money-making gimmicks, but the fundamental realities will remain on Twitter.
For all Musk’s talk about the need for free speech. Twitter has ever suffered from a lack of free speech. Because a one-way medium is great for free speech for the person doing the one-way Enos and fundamentally Twitter is a glossy free for all BBS on which anyone can say anything. There are no pre-post restrictions on Twitter. If I want to say anything, I can say it. I might get in trouble for it, but probably not.
The problem with Twitter isn’t a lack of free speech, but a lack of free dialogue. Twitter provides a BBS not a place to have a conversation, even though it’s the social media platform most possible to have any type of conversation. That’s the irony of it. That’s the patheticness of social media. Twitter was not designed to be a place for people to converse; that sort of site has never existed. It is designed to be a place to spout off, and that’s still light years ahead of TikTok and Instagram and Telegram and all these other places.
But Twitter is actually worse than the BBSs and for those of you who are not old enough to remember BBSs, this is going back into the 80s here where you could literally have back and forth conversations. Not in real time, it wasn’t like that. It was more like e-mails in that sense. but you had a back and forth, but Twitter allows only short statements and memes.
Twitter does not offer topical discussion groups or threads. It does not make it easy to have discussion beyond a one-on-one exchange. Posts almost immediately disappear into the ethers. That is true, even worse, 10 times 100 times worse, for TikTok and Instagram.
The one advantage of Twitter is that it is a public BBS. It is not a private invite-only server like Mastodon. It takes some effort on Twitter, but you can overcome the algorithms and find new people and new ideas. Only very short ideas of course.
There are rumors that Musk may take away that one advantage Twitter has and start charging people to enter closed Mastodon-like servers or institute subscription-only Substack-like newsletters that would lead to less free speech and still not address the lack of free dialogue.
Musk is about money and ego not free speech. Twitter already caters to the tendency of most people closing themselves off from new people and new ideas. People hide in their echo chambers and afraid to step outside their silos.
Will Musk just provide more silos that suppress free dialogue? Would people instead pay for a platform where truly a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner? We probably won’t be given the chance to find out. Twitter may be our last best hope because TikTok is never going to go the way of open dialogue. TikTok will probably be banned pretty soon in Europe in the United States because of his connection with the Chinese security apparatus. Instagram doesn’t allow free dialogue. They’re all one-way mediums.
That’s a problem with podcasts. Yeah, you could go to InsertPhilosophyHere.com and send me a message. But that’s an effort, an effort that a vast majority of people aren’t willing to make in this age of ease and one-way communication.
I fear, I genuinely fear, that as the corporatization of social media continues, we’re going in the wrong direction — into Mastodon-like silos, or Substack-like newsletters. One-way, no dialogue. Just people showing off or people pushing propaganda.
Is there any way out? I don’t know. I’d like to hear your ideas. Maybe I will. Or maybe it’s just too difficult to actually have a conversation.