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#NetworkEffect - Unearthing the Darker Tendencies of #SocialMedia #Browsing

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"The Internet is said to show our common humanity. Through its data, it is said to provide a kind of omniscience, and through its social networks, a deeper sense of connection. For those without access, it holds the promise of a better life. For those of us who use it a lot, its power to affect our lives is clear — but what is the nature of that effect? How does it change our behaviour? The way we see others? The way we see ourselves?"

That quote is the first thing you see before being granted your brief tour of Network Effect. Once inside, you are faced with an assault of audible and visual information, organised into key words like 'Burn', 'Shoot', 'Drive' and 'Kiss'. Select any one of these word and a cluster of YouTube clips, audio bites, tweets and news snippets will emerge, along with collated data about the usage of the word in terms of history, gender frequency and other factors. It's a dizzying, unsettling experience, not least because of the steady heartbeat sound that runs beneath all the clips. Ultimately though, it just feels like a serving of thick, useless audio-visual sludge.

The way it's presented makes it look like collated news data, but it isn't about anything even remotely important. The creators of the site used a system of algorithms that, based on a particular word, trawl Twitter and Google News to gather all the information you see in front of you. They also trawled through over 10,000 videos to gather brief clips of the particular action the word describes being performed.

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There might be some interesting information to be gleaned from the charts detailing gender divides, associated words and historical usage, but you likely won't get enough to ferret it out, since you're only allowed to stay on Network Effect for the number of minutes equivocal to the average life expectancy in your area. For example, the site deduced that here in Cambridgeshire, it's 81, so I was allowed to stay on the site for all of 8 minutes. Most people will get somewhere between 7 and 8 minutes, based on that. The highest life expectancy in the world is 84 (Japan) and if you live in any of the places in the lower bracket, you've probably got more important things to be worrying about.

That is, in a way, what this bizarre experience is trying to remind you of. It's putting you face-to-face with a far more condensed, saturated version of what you scroll through on a daily basis. Through social media scrolling and general potting around on search engines, you are typically met with a steady trickle of information which is, ultimately, completely hollow. Online activity has a real, measurable link to depression and cognitive dissonance, as well as a kind of fixation.

After you're done browsing through the nightmarish pastiche of the main site, you are redirected to an 'epilogue' page which outlines the motivation of the site in more detail. "The videos activate our voyeurism, the sound recordings tempt us with secrets, and the data promises a kind of omniscience, but all of it is a mirage — there is no one here to watch, there is no secret to find, and the data, which seems to be so important, is actually absurd." It explains. "The Internet is a miraculous tool, but all too often, it affects us like a drug. Many of its popular apps, news websites, and social networks have been carefully designed to addict and distract, so they can harvest human attention like the natural resource it is."

It's a disheartening observation, but a poignant one. Obviously, presenting all this data in such a deliberately unsettling way is bound to make you feel ill at ease about all this, but for me it unearthed a discomfort that is always lurking somewhere at the back of my mind when I'm online. It's difficult not to wonder what you're actually achieving or gaining as you skim your way though endless status updates, photographs of people you barely know and news links that you push out to another tab, only to submissively close it later when you finally admit to yourself you aren't actually going to read it.

The site isn't trying to spur anyone to start some kind of 'offline revolution', storming into houses and tearing ethernet cables out of their sockets, it's merely providing a sense of perspective. Typically, you could probably achieve the same amount with 10 minutes spent on your various social media accounts as you do in an hour, and it can be easy to forget sometimes that you're just watching time slither away. Perhaps keeping Network Effect bookmarked (you can only use it once a day) could act as a kind of social media methadone.



Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF


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#NetworkEffect - Unearthing the Darker Tendencies of #SocialMedia #Browsing Reviewed by Callum Davies on Sunday, October 11, 2015 Rating: 5

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