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Since You're Probably Spending A Lot of Time on Social Media, Learn About it on 'Niall Ferguson's Networld'
March 17, 2020  | By David Hinckley

You don't need to watch three hours of television to grasp that there are both good and bad things about the Internet and social media.

You can figure that out on your own in, like, a nanosecond.

It's still interesting to watch that whole massive subject deconstructed in Niall Ferguson's Networld, which premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

One further warning: While Ferguson explores his subject in language we civilians can understand, he inevitably throws a lot of tech talk at us.

So if all you care to know is that: 1) Facebook lets you see pictures of your high school friends' kids, and 2) the Internet is crawling with opinionated morons, you probably won't make it through Ferguson's dense three-hour seminar on social networks.

On the other hand, you could also think of it this way: The coronavirus has probably shut down most of your other entertainment options for a Tuesday night, so you might as well spend the night learning something.

Ferguson's previous TV productions have included The Ascent of Money, which was also not a sitcom. In a similar academic vein, Networld distills much of the information found in his latest book, The Square and The Tower: Networks and Power.

Networld offers no simple answer to the question of whether social networks will advance or cripple mankind. Ferguson repeatedly explains how they could do either. Or both. It depends on a billion individual decisions on what or whom we pay attention.

A social network, by definition, is precisely as strong as its followers, which does not mean all followers are created equal.

Ferguson instead begins with a history lesson, gently correcting every teenager who assumes life on earth began with the invention of the smartphone.

To illustrate this point, Ferguson explains how the famous ride of Paul Revere was really an exercise in social networking.

When Revere rode through the Massachusetts night to warn rebel colonists that, "The British are coming," his message wasn't effective because he had a really loud voice.

Revere, like many of America's other founding fathers, was a freemason. When he rode that night, he was notifying other freemasons about the incoming British troops, and because these other freemasons were part of Revere's social network, they, in turn, spread the word to every Middlesex village and farm.

Social networking has been around forever, Ferguson explains. The smartphone and the Internet have only made it more widespread and more efficient.

That truism, like every other point in Networld, leads us back to the impact of instant social networking on the life and culture of the world.

Ferguson, like the rest of us, slams into a hurricane of contradictions. Social media has made the world a global community, where Africans can link to Eskimos as easily as people once borrowed a cup of sugar from the neighbor next door. At the same time, it has made us more tribal and isolated, by allowing users to spend all their time in comfortable echo chambers, untroubled by any views by those with which they already agree.

Ferguson doesn't resolve these big questions about the Internet and social networking, nor does he try to.

He just wants us to have a better perspective on, and therefore understanding of, the beast with which we are wrestling.

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