Crowdsourced reality is here. Understanding this is crucial to surviving and succeeding in the information society.
Reality & Escapism
We’ve always lived in multiple realities. The first of these is that we perceive in our direct interaction with the world – let’s call this “lived reality”. But beyond that, we have a tendency to seek escapism, particularly through media.
Lived reality is not static; it is influenced by the other realities we dabble in. We have first-hand ability to influence our own realities, by choosing what to aim at. And media we consume like TV ends up exerting its own influence.
We bring home pieces from the realities we escape to. Whether it’s books, music, TV, movies, the internet, whatever – there’s a cumulative effect on how we perceive the world from all the media we’re exposed to. You may have noticed this in the immediate aftermath of watching a movie or TV show – watch one type of show or character, and you’ll start acting a certain way. Watch something else, and you’ll behave using that media’s perspective for a while.
Narratives from the alternate realities we escape to end up influencing our lived realities. Watch a bunch of police procedurals, and the world seems like it’s full of crimes waiting to happen. Watch a climate change documentary, and it seems like we live in a world of dangerous excess. Read some zen koans, and the world appears as a stage to seek peace and serenity.
Historically, we have escaped to alternate realities with defined narratives. Books are written by authors, who weave a story whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Radio and TV shows are produced, with storylines and characters. The news is defined and prioritized by an editorial board. Movies have scripts and directors. These people exert care and attention to create cohesive, compelling narratives. Of course, this often fails – there’s enough garbage content out there to consume for the rest of your life, with no breaks. But the important point is that we’ve historically been exposed to alternate realities that were intentionally crafted. And so the effects on our own lived realities came from cohesive, designed realities.
Crowdsourced reality is the new normal. Escapism is no longer restricted to designed media. Typically, we’ll spend just as much time escaping to social media and the internet as we do to designed media. And increasingly, the balance is shifting to the internet.
The internet and social media are not designed realities. They are scattershot collections of input from all over the place. Refresh your social media feed, and you have no idea what’s going to pop up. Certainly, there was no authorship of what’s next in the feed. There’s no editor, no script, no director. Even if a well-designed piece of scripted content shows up in the feed, it could well be followed by a cat picture or a Spongebob Squarepants meme. No human determines what comes next; if anything does at all, it’s an algorithm.
The internet’s alternate reality is uncoordinated and has multiple authors. If you’re reading this, I’m an author in your reality. When you refresh your feed, you might see pieces from people you’ve chosen to follow. Those people are consistent authors in your reality, but they’re not coordinating with the others. They post, and perhaps it shows up. But someone else posts, at their own discretion, and it’ll show up right afterwards. Every time something is retweeted or re-shared, yet you don’t follow that person, it’s an author showing up for a small-time cameo in defining your reality.
Implications Of Crowdsourced Reality
Crowdsourced reality necessitates you exerting greater control over your information diet. With designed alternate realities – traditional media – you at least knew what you were getting into. You’d watch a movie and not necessarily know what was going to happen, but you’d know if it’s a comedy, thriller, or drama. Refreshing a feed, you’ve no idea what’s going to pop up.
Who you follow and what you consume matters. A feed full of negative people will make your reality more negative. Nonstop undistilled information wrests narrative control of your reality away from you completely. Habitual re-sharers have greater variance in how they’ll affect your reality than people that tend to post their own content – many authors vs. one author.
Chaos in alternate realities creates chaos in lived realities. As internet and social media use increases, we lose out on cultural touchstones, as we’re all consuming alternate realities from a far longer menu of options. But the crowdsourced nature of these alternate realities also means that none of our escapism is as cohesive as it used to be. When we return to lived reality, we’re all bringing in a complete jumble of influences. And so everyone’s thoughts, behavior, and lived realities become more chaotic and less organized. You might have noticed this in the hysteria everyone seems to be caught up in.
Buck the trend – exercise more editorial control and authorship over the reality you experience.