Social media as pseudo-community

In 1987, two years before James Beniger wrote The Control Revolution, his seminal study of the role information systems play in society, he published an article called “Personalization of Mass Media and the Growth of Pseudo-Community” in the journal Communication Research. Beniger’s subject was the shift from “interpersonal communication” to “mass communication” as the basis of human relations. The shift had begun in the eighteenth century, with the introduction of high-speed printing presses and the proliferation of widely circulating newspapers and magazines; had accelerated with the arrival of broadcasting in the middle of the twentieth century; and was taking a new turn with the rise of digital media.

Beniger argued that interpersonal, or face-to-face, communication encourages the development of small, tightly knit, tightly controlled communities where individual interests are subordinate to group interests. For most of human history, society was structured along these intimate lines. Mass communication, more efficient but less intimate, encourages the development of large, loosely knit, loosely controlled communities where individual interests take precedence over group interests. As mass communication became ever more central to human experience in the second half of the twentieth century, thanks to the enormous popularity of radio and television, society restructured itself, with individualism and personal freedom becoming the governing ethos. The trend seemed to culminate in the free-wheeling, self-indulgent 1970s.

The arrival of the personal computer around 1980 put a twist in the story. By enabling mass media messages to be personalized, computers began to make mass communication feel as intimate as interpersonal communication, while also making mass communication even more efficient.* Imbuing broadcasting with an illusion of intimacy, computers expanded media’s power to structure and control human relations. Observed Beniger:

Gradually each of us has become enmeshed in superficially interpersonal relations that confuse personal with mass messages and increasingly include interactions with machines that write, speak, and even “think” with success steadily approaching that of humans. The change constitutes nothing less than a transformation of traditional community into impersonal association — toward an unimagined hybrid of the two extremes that we might call pseudo-community.

Beniger emphasized that, for broadcasters and advertisers, contriving a sense of intimacy had always been a central goal, as it served to give their programs and messages greater influence over the audience. Even during the early days of radio and TV, the performers who seemed most sincere to listeners and viewers tended to have the greatest success — whether their sincerity was real or feigned. With computer personalization, Beniger understood, individuals’ sense of personal connection with mass-media messages would strengthen. The glue of pseudo-community would be pseudo-intimacy. 

Although Beniger wrote his article several years before the invention of the web and long before the arrival of social media, he was remarkably prescient about what lay ahead:

The capacity of such [digital] mass media for simulating interpersonal communication is limited only by their output technologies, computing power, and artificial intelligence; their capacity for personalization is limited only by the size and quality of data sets on the households and individuals to which they are linked.

The power of “sincerity” — today we would be more likely to use the terms “authenticity” and “relatability” — would also intensify, Beniger saw. Overwhelmed with personalized messages, people would put their trust and faith in whatever human or machine broadcaster felt most real, most genuine to them.

Mass communication skills would thereby prove as effective in influencing attitudes in behavior as would the corresponding interpersonal skills in a true “community of values.” Electorates of large nation states might even entrust mass media personalities with high public office as a consequence of this dynamic.

Beniger did not live long enough to see the rise of social media, but it seems clear he would have viewed its expansion and automation of personalized broadcasts as the fulfillment of his vision of pseudo-community. Digital media’s blurring of interpersonal and mass communication, he concluded in his article, was establishing a “new infrastructure” for societal control, on a scale far greater than was possible before. The infrastructure could be used, he wrote, “for evil or for good.”

*For a different take on the consequences of the blurring of personal and mass communication, see my recent New Atlantis article “How to Fix Social Media.”