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Digital Vertigo

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That, as Keen points out, is wishful thinking. One of the problems is that we tend to value other people’s privacy less than our own – and social media has democratized the business of exposure. The social media and privacy maximalists might cheer when the good folks of Twitter out a footballer for having an affair but they might feel differently about social-media-fueled people power when a collective of pro-lifers on Facebook publishes photos of their daughter entering an abortion clinic.

Keen takes on the digital evangelists with their overblown and self-serving claims about the power of the Internet to revolutionize society and bring human salvation. He pours water on the notion that the Internet is helping us rediscover a lost oral and participatory culture and community. Anyone who has ever seen the racist hashtags that occasionally crop up on Twitter, or the legions of extremist, hate-filled Groups on Facebook would know that such sentiments are well meaning but up in the clouds.

But while Keen is right to lambast these digital evangelists promising a new Renaissance (and he does so with verve), it is perhaps an exaggeration to suggest that a new Dark Ages could be imminent. The book suffers from the same failing as many books on the Internet: a selective use of studies and anecdotal evidence to bolster its arguments. For example, Keen cites a 2007 Brigham Young University social-media study that found that the heaviest networkers “feel less socially involved with the community around them.” But there are plenty of other academic studies that show the exact opposite – that, in fact, social-media users have richer social lives.

Or Keen cites a study that showed that in 2010, among teenagers, use of e-mail was down by 59 percent. According to the author, that meant teenagers were prepared to sacrifice the one-to-one privacy of email in favor of the “public social-messaging platforms like Twitter and Facebook.” He doesn’t mention, however, that both Twitter and Facebook allow private messaging between users and that is how teenagers often use them.

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