Graduate Reading Room in the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington in Seattle. Getty Images.
Social media platforms prioritize talking over listening, global over local, individual over community, speed over accuracy, sharing over understanding. Libraries prioritize reading, emphasize a globally aware local grounding, foster community, prioritize evidence-based understanding and trace their roots to quiet contemplation. What if social media platforms adapted to be more like libraries with their emphasis on learning and less like today’s schoolyard screaming matches?
The Web has long been described as the Library 2.0, a digital reincarnation of the knowledge centers that have long propelled society. Yet libraries are based upon the concepts of curation and gatekeeping. A tinfoil conspiracy theorist won’t have their self-published book of magical medical cures on the same shelf as a reference work from the Mayo Clinic. Fiction books are shelved in an entirely different place than non-fiction. Reference works are separated from opinion pieces.
Social media eliminates all of these distinctions, mashing anything and everything together without any ability to tell fact from fiction, evidence from opinion.
Most importantly, social media emphasizes speaking over listening.
On social media, there are no rewards for quietly and thoughtfully consuming the content of others. The only recognition comes from shouting one’s own uninformed opinion to the world.
In stark contrast, libraries are about research, learning, trusted sources and quiet contemplation. Content is clearly separated by genre, meaning personal opinion and fictional accounts are physically delineated from reference works and evidence-based documentaries.
Libraries are primarily places designed for consumption rather than production. A library is not typically the place to go to broadcast one’s thoughts to the world. Few libraries are equipped to mass publish books or flyers or mail them all across the world. They are places where one comes to consume the wisdom, musings and entertainment of others.
They are also places where communities come together and the bonds that draw people together are strengthened. Community programs, meeting rooms, performance stages, maker spaces, children’s corners and countless other initiatives mean libraries are part knowledge repository and part community center. They are a place where neighbors catch up and strangers meet one another.
Libraries are places we come to be enlightened and entertained.
Libraries are, in many ways, the inverse of social media.
What if social media platforms were more like libraries?
They would emphasize listening over speaking. Community over the individual. Local over global. They would also clearly delineate fact from fiction, opinion from evidence, using interface mechanisms to help users separate these much as libraries have long done.
In fact, social platforms are beginning to pivot back towards community, with Facebook placing the concept of community as central to its future. Platforms are beginning to emphasize geographic proximity and friendship ties in surfacing information. They are also exploring tools like fact checking partnerships to distinguish fact from fiction, though only in response to falsehoods rather than as a proactive cataloging mechanism.
Yet most importantly they are still not addressing their prioritization of speaking over listening. Until this is solved, they will struggle to solve issues surrounding the spread of falsehoods that revolve around prioritizing speed over accuracy.
In the end, rather than accepting today’s social platforms as the inevitable form of global communication, it is worth thinking what might happen if they were a little more like libraries.