When we go on Facebook, we see a cascade of messages determined by the company’s News Feed algorithm, and we’re provided with a set of prescribed ways to react to each message. We can click a Like button; we can share the message with our friends; we can add a brief comment. With the messages we see on Twitter, we’re given buttons for replying, retweeting and favoriting, and any thought we express has to fit the service’s tight text limits. Google News gives us a series of headlines, emphasizing the latest stories to have received a cluster of coverage, and it provides a row of buttons for sharing the headlines on Google Plus, Twitter and Facebook. All social networks impose these kinds of formal constraints, both on what we see and on how we respond. The restrictions have little to do with the public interest. They reflect the commercial interests of the companies operating the networks as well as the protocols of software programming.
Because it simplifies and speeds up communications, the formulaic quality of social media is well suited to the banter that takes place among friends. Clicking a heart symbol may be the perfect way to judge the worth of an Instagrammed selfie (or even a presidential snapshot). But when applied to political speech, the same constraints can be pernicious, inspiring superficiality rather than depth. Political discourse rarely benefits from templates and routines. It becomes most valuable when it involves careful deliberation, an attention to detail and subtle and open-ended critical thought—the kinds of things that social media tends to frustrate rather than promote.
Over the next year, as the presidential campaign careens toward its conclusion, all of us—the public, the press, and the candidates themselves—will get an education in how elections work in the age of social media. We may discover that the gates maintained by our new gatekeepers are narrower than ever.