Interviews | October 26, 2015 at 11:13 pm

Nicholas Carr Explores the Limits of Social Media

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Nicholas Carr has written about technology, politics, and culture for The AtlanticThe Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. His newest book The Glass Cage: How Computers Are Changing Us explores the effects of technological automation.

Harvard Political Review: Do you think that the campaigns of non-political establishment candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, even Kanye West are doing relatively well due to social media or increased political polarization?

Nicholas Carr: I think social media has something to do with it, I mean, the nature of social media kind of levels the playing field for candidates because it is so built around streams of little messages. What used to matter a whole lot, for example, with TV, was the image of the candidate, building an image, and it helped to have experience with government that gave you that kind of gravitas. I don’t think that’s as important anymore. So I don’t think it’s the only reason Trump and Carson, and these kind of outsiders, are doing well, I do think there is frustration in general with politics and Washington plays into that but I do think social media is playing a role. I don’t think it would have played out like this if we were just watching things on TV or listening to them on radio or reading about them in the papers.

Do you think there could be a situation where, for example, you talk about how candidates are only important due to their latest or most relevant tweet, a situation where a last minute message or tweet could theoretically affect the outcome of the election?

I would doubt if it would change the outcome of the election at that point, I mean that’s always been a part even with TV and other media, there was always a sense that maybe someone would say something in the last hour, an October surprise or something like that. But I think as the campaign gets toward the end, people’s opinions start to harden as well as their affiliations. In a very close election, I think that could happen with something on social media but my guess is just that there are some things that don’t change and by the end of the campaign, people kind of know—feel—like they know the candidates so I don’t think it’ll be that fluid at that point.

You’ve mentioned how we have gone from the radio to television and now to social media. Do you think social media has condemned politics to this attention grabbing show of information?

Well, I think that’s the danger we face. That we take political discourse and funnel it into these communication systems of social media that were designed for banter among friends and chit chat and kind of shooting the breeze and we expect that … what happens then is that political discourse, which is something that benefits from people paying attention and then thinking deeply, simply becomes another stream among all the streams that pour past us, so we might learn that although much political discussion is happening in social media, it might not be the best possible media for that type of discussion.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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