Print, as a medium for news, is dead. News never waited for anyone but before the Internet we often had to wait for it. But news finds us now, seeking out our online presence. To use print as a means of disseminating news today is a postmodern statement of futility. Online offers endless space and endless time. One would think that this is a development without downsides for media outlets, but questions have to be asked about how we use the Internet to inform ourselves and others.
News online is accessed through one of two ways; we can still seek it out on specific media sites in the same we way we used to buy the paper but now it also comes to us, through our news feeds on Facebook and Twitter. That news can come to us is a symptom of the mass migration of the digital age. Like the news, we too have, in our millions, moved online.
There are people alive today using Facebook who have no memory of the world being a place without it. Online is as normal, if not as real, as real life to people who don’t remember a time before social media, and also for many who can.
To use the vocabulary of the French theorist Jean Baudrillard, we now have a hyperreality alongside the real world, one that we engage with every time we log in and one that engages with us through our newsfeed.
What then are the consequences of a hyperrealty in which individuals inform themselves and gather their news about the real world? In what ways do our online selves interact differently with online news than we interact with news in the real world?
“We’ve reached a period where social media is an established institution, part of everyday life, what Baudrillard might call the “precession of simulacra”. On an individual basis, this means Facebook precedes us; it’s waiting for us to sign up with an outline of a profile picture that we substitute for a picture of ourselves.”
Another of Baudrillard’s ideas is “the loss of the real”, the increasing influence of virtual reality in our lives and the blurring of the distinction between the real and the imagined, reality and illusion. Social media is a frighteningly clear example of both hyperreality and the loss of the real. Worrying enough as this is as a social trend, when it becomes the means by which we inform ourselves for the real world, the fabric of that real world comes into question.
The building blocks of hyperreality for Baudrillard are signs that “mask the absence of a basic reality.” These are signs that disguise the fact that they don’t actually correspond to anything real. Peter Barry gives the example of idealised images of masculinity and femininity that pervade society. These are signs for which no original exists but which people strive to imitate. Thus the sign, the imagined, becomes the reality and the real is forgotten.
For the individual, their Facebook profile is a means by which they can construct themselves as they wish. They can commit acts which often have no basis in reality. They can become friends, join movements and like things, previously held to be events that all presupposed coming into contact with something real, something tangible.
We’ve reached a period where social media is an established institution, part of everyday life, what Baudrillard might call the “precession of simulacra”. On an individual basis, this means Facebook precedes us; it’s waiting for us to sign up with an outline of a profile picture that we substitute for a picture of ourselves.
People also access news online. A danger arises when the media is doing the same as the individual, when media outlets are themselves masking an absence of reality online. If this is how people are getting their news, then there is a serious disconnect with the real world.
News, the news we choose to engage with online, just becomes another facet of an online reality that exists without any grounding in either the world of the individual or of the events in which they exist. What people like and share online is part of their online persona and by choosing what they want to be seen to know, informing oneself can become synonymous with accessorising one’s online character.
CollegeTimes.com is an example of a system of signs masking absences passing as media, a “simulacrum”. The “reality” of CollegeTimes.com is not that of an underlying reality, but of other signs. By disseminating ideas like “Most Attractive Personality Traits in A Woman” and “The 29 Most Annoying Things Girlfriends Ask” online, they promote a narrative with no basis in reality but which is designed to be shared and liked by people online.
There is no such thing as the “most attractive woman” or the “most annoying girlfriend” but in an online world such ideas have weight when no-one’s idea of themselves has much grounding in real life either, when their online personas are designed to hide what they perceive to be their real life absences.
People don’t want to be the “most annoying girlfriend” but because no-one can ever really say what makes a girlfriend the most annoying, the best thing is to subscribe to an online definition of what that is, and apply it to oneself, or rather to oneself online.
Though the Internet is not the first spectre to incite questions over mass media it is a particular issue that has no real precedent. It poses issues that have never before encountered by those engaging with media and those in charge of it.
Obviously responsible journalism, as ever, stays the same. Report the facts and don’t make things up, but in an environment of simulation, the means of communication are just as important as what’s being reported. When the individuals and the media are both operating on assumptions on what the other wants their reality to be, then reporting the facts becomes more complicated.
Baudrillard’s famous claim that the Gulf War never happened highlights the layers of complications that arise from journalism in the digital age. Though the first Gulf War undeniably took place, the framing and reporting by media meant that the only consciousness that we, the masses, had of the war is what they chose to show us. Subsequently, we were bombarded with what they wanted us to see.