Social media are beginning to have profound impacts on society at global scales, with potentially good and bad impacts. On the latter, Morales et al. have recently published a paper reporting that they have detected what they call a “new emergent global synchrony that couples behavior in distant regions across the world.” They analyzed over 500 million geolocated tweets and detected a marked heartbeat pattern of tweeting on global longitudinal scales, which makes sense as people at the same longitude share the same work, play, eat, and sleep times. These pulses move around the world like the “wave” in a stadium. The authors observe that this synchrony is the result of a mix of intentional and self-organized behavior and leads to increasing global social complexity.
While it’s nice to think of the world population beating in synchronization, all made possible by Twitter, Facebook, and other macro-scale social media, there can be downsides. I have posted before about research suggesting that complex adaptive systems are at their most fragile—and most susceptible to cascading contagion failure—when feedback mechanisms are strongly synchronized in the same direction. As the authors hypothesize, the global synchrony might actually “condition people’s decisions and diminish individuals’ freedom, as they are constrained by the norms and conventions of the social environment.” Consider, as well, the possibility that misinformation and mal-intended information enters the synchronous global media system. It could surge through and have devastating impacts before corrective action can be taken. Much as the Arab Spring demonstrated the positive power of mass social media, the emergent global social media synchrony could become a medium for cascades of injury to people and social fabric.
Regulatory solutions to this potential do not appear practical. Unlike Wall Street’s ability to stop trading when the market starts heading south fast, it may be impossible to shut down social media globally. Even if it could be done, the idea has disturbing political implications for personal freedom. Alas, given my relative ineptness at Twitter and the like, I probably wouldn’t know if it were shut down!