Social Media and Meritocracy: The Myth Reborn

by JenniferCobb on 07/10/2011

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The roots of the modern meritocratic dream were planted in the 1950s by a British civil servant named  Michael Young.  His novel The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) painted a picture of far-distant 2034, where society would be guided by near-perfect IQ tests to sort the more intelligent and gifted into positions of social power.  The novel turns ugly when the masses rise up and overthrow the elite, resulting in social chaos.  The folly of a pure meritocracy, articulated in a novel intended as social satire, has not stopped many who live in democratic states from the dream that something like it will ultimately emerge.  The challenge with democracy, after all, is rule by the lowest common denominator – the great uneducated masses.  The antidote is an educated electorate.  Access to education, particularly job-worthy higher education, has become one of the central tenets of the American dream, often cited as embodying meritocratic ideals.  The intelligent and hardworking have access to education and rise to the top through our excellent colleges and universities.

But do they?

A recent New York Times article noted that only 15% of students in the class of 2010 entering the country’s 193 most selective colleges came from the bottom half of the income distribution.  In sharp contrast, 67% came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. Tony Marx, outgoing president of Amherst College and  a powerful advocate for economic diversity in elite colleges, said,   “We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent.  Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”   The article goes on to say that only 44% of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college compared to almost 50% of high-income seniors with average test scores.

This hardly sounds like a fair distribution of social goods.

However, the dream of a meritocracy remains, often touted most vociferously by elites who argue that in a market-driven democracy, the best do rise to the top, quite naturally.   And what defines the best?  Often-cited characteristics underpinning the meritocratic ideal include intelligence, hard work, strong moral character and integrity. In a capitalist system, the reward for rising to the top is income and influence.  Do we really want to argue that the most economically successful and influential people in our culture are the most honest?  After the events of the past few years in our financial markets, this would be a stretch to say the least.  Even a casual observer should now see that the notion of free markets naturally rewarding those with the most merit is a broken dream at best.

And yet this dream refuses to die.  It systemically and subtly permeates most conversations about social mobility and influence.  Let’s take the case of the glass ceiling for women in most professions.  A recent New Yorker article profiling Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, relates the enormous attention she received for her recent TEDWomen and Barnard College commencement speeches.  Her message to young women in both was to “lean in” and find what you really want to do before you have children.  That way, when you get to the childbearing part, you will already be on the path to the top and little will dislodge you.  Her contention is that the reason women are not populating more boardrooms and C-suites is due to their choice to pull back.  She says to Ken Auletta, “The No. 1 impediment to women succeeding in the workforce is now in the home . . . . Most people assume that women are responsible for households and childcare. . . .   That fundamental assumption holds women back.”  Change your assumption, she argues, and lean into your ambition.  You will rise up the ranks.  This position assumes that once a woman can escape the pull of the home, she will, through her own merits, rise to the top.  Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project, is quoted in the same article saying, “underneath Sheryl’s assessment is the belief that this is a meritocracy. It’s not.  Women are not dropping out to have a child. They’re dropping out because they have no opportunity.”

One of the most persistent bastions for the dream of meritocracy is the digital domain.  Online there is a level playing field.  We are all content producers, consumers and editors. The best content rises to the top and gains the widest distribution.   All you need is a laptop and an internet connection and you can work anywhere, do anything.   Jobs will sort themselves to the perfect people and the dream of the meritocracy – where everyone in society naturally finds the right fit for their unique capacities – will come true.  Never mind the fact that 2/3 of the world’s population is not online.  With a global growth rate of 480%, that is changing quickly.  Soon the whole world will be digitally connected and society will become a perfectly frictionless meritocratic utopia.

I got to thinking about this general issue reading about Klout.  Klout is a new internet service that gives you a score ranking your online influence.  It arrives at this score based on your level of influence in Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.  And it’s a very funny notion.  Sure, it makes tons of sense that in the digital domain, where every interaction is recorded, some smart entrepreneur would write an algorithm to rank activity.  And it makes sense that we would find this amusing and even interesting.  But what is unsettling is that these very seductive numbers could begin to be seen as a measure of our social merit.

What is Klout really looking at?  It is examining how many times my friends “liked” my photos of my vacation or how many people commented on my birthday update.  Does it make any distinction about what I am posting?  What if I post heavily about human rights issues and other “heavy” things that my Facebook friends don’t “like”?  Can it possibly measure the depth of my friendships by looking at the clickstream of my friends in relation to me?  What can it really know about my influence?

Klout is founded on the assumption that scoring us based on our social media “influence” is a socially valuable activity.  Never mind that many people with lots of influence aren’t even on Facebook or Twitter.  And never mind that the quality of content is only judged by how many people react to it.  In cyberspace, popularity equals success.  Do we really want a world where Justin Bieber, who has a perfect Klout score of 100, sets the standard of successful influence?  We would be wise to resist our tendency to amplify in the digital world the dangerous assumptions we make about society in the real world.  And among the most dangerous is that those at the top are by definition the best among us and deserve to be there.

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