Despite the volume of tweets, blogs and posts, what if you could provide a way for everyone to communicate to everybody?
By Hank Shaw
Social media gives everyone a publishing platform — a chance to broadcast thoughts and opinions to the wider world.
The only problem is, most of those blog posts and tweets vanish into the cloud with very little impact, because they are only read by a handful of people.
But what if you could make everyone’s voice heard? What if you could provide a way for everyone to communicate to everybody? Wouldn’t that make public discourse much more democratic? Wouldn’t it help us debate policy priorities? Wouldn’t it promote shared understandings and social cohesion?
That’s the vision of “social mass communication” proposed by James Henderson, a Principal Scientist and language technology expert at the Xerox Research Centre Europe in Grenoble, France.
“The larger social impact will happen when we have media that support “many to many” communication, that supports everybody talking directly to everybody else,” he said.
Grappling with the content explosion
Of course, the number one challenge is dealing with the massive amount of social media content that is created every day. So if you want to understand how people think and feel about a particular issue, you have to be able to boil a jillion different messages into a single chunk of content that’s easy to read and understand.
Once you’ve done the high-volume message crunching, it’s easy to broadcast the final output to the general public over existing social media channels. In fact, we already know how to do that pretty well.
But the summarization issue is the sticking point. Given the millions of messages generated every minute, it’s impossible for people to handle the assignment with any degree of speed and efficiency.
Instead, you need computerized tools to do it. And they have to be highly sophisticated tools that can process everyday language, reflect the diversity and distribution of opinion on a particular topic, capture the subtleties of expression people use when they’re pounding the keyboard, and even understand the difference between sarcasm and sincerity.
Technology to the rescue
Let’s face it. That kind of intricate “opinion summarization” is a tall order for a machine. But fortunately there are some remarkable language technologies in development that can handle the heavy lifting.
“We are developing technologies that, in the not-too-distant future, will produce the kind of summarization we need to support social mass communication, “ James said.
“It’s a good mechanism for debating policy priorities,” he continued. “It’s also a good mechanism for discovering emerging issues that maybe politicians aren’t aware of, but that people at the grassroots think are very important.”
Of course, social mass communication and its high-powered tools for opinion summarization won’t replace complex argumentation and in-depth journalism. But they have the potential to help us understand each other better. And someday they could even bring us closer together.
“I think it will be an important mechanism for improving social cohesion,” James said. “When people can see how their opinion fits in the range of opinions, it will help establish a sense of community. Social mass communication is going to deliver on the promise of social media for a more democratic public debate.”
James Henderson’s video presentation, “How Social Mass Communication Will Change Our Society,” is part of a series of talks on emerging trends. The Emerging Trends Presentations is a series of 15-minute video presentations on new directions that was developed for the 20th anniversary of Xerox Research Centre Europe on October 4, 2013.
(This article was published on Real Business, a website from Xerox that provides ideas and information for decision-makers in business and government.)