Is social media really breaking down walls, or just helping us build higher, thicker ones?

by Francis Wooby on February 8, 2012

As the Web has been earning it’s "2.0" status over the years, there’s been a lot of celebration of how it’s bringing us all closer together, bridging those communications gaps once so arduous to cross. People of all different socioeconomic levels, professions, interests, etc. were coming together in common meeting spaces to share ideas and stories. We smashed through the need for mitigating agents who judge and select what messages to pass on to the masses; and the masses were given a voice with which to respond. We could now talk to one another directly, without the constraints of social, professional or other circles we ran in. We were free to to explore the great wide open for ourselves.

Is this what we have now? Is this what we ever had?

One would think that in such a world there would be lessening polarization along religious, political, ethnic, class and other lines. Instead, it feels as if we’re pushing one another farther away, and hunkering deeper into to ideological foxholes.

There is probably some deep-seated human compulsion to gravitate towards those like us, so despite the wide variety of choice available to us on social networks, we glom onto those we know, and onto those who seem familiar. We seek those with similar interests, beliefs and experiences.

One really has to make an effort break their social habits, and connect with someone unfamiliar, outside their comfort zone. It can be a big step leaving a thoughtful comment or question in response to a blog post, tweet, podcast or Facebook status update you don’t agree with, or on a topic you want to learn more about.

It’s easy to troll and give a knee-jerk criticism, but not to actually engage an other person in dialogue about something new, and maybe even offensive to you.

The perceived beauty of social media—and the internet in general—is that it’s a vehicle in which to cross the boundaries of your own knowledge, biases and prejudices, in order to grow. There is limitless information out there, and a wealth of potential teachers, and even friends.

Unfortunately, not as many individuals seemed to take advantage of this opportunity as some might have initially hoped, or at least not as quickly. Instead, folks more or less have been sticking to what, and who, they know.

It can even be argued that things have been moving backward socially as technology advances. In his TED Talk, "Beware of Online Filter Bubbles", Eli Pariser discusses how filters (Those things in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. that suggest certain friends for you and raise specific posts to the top of your news feeds while burying others.) are hastening the rise of the echo chambers we tend to build around ourselves.

Our natural leanings towards those who think like us often manifest in our online presences as collections of friends/contacts saying lots of stuff we tend to agree with, and agreeing with lots of the stuff we say. Filters only strengthen this by figuring out our preferred demographic of friends, topics of articles to read, and the like, and pre-emptively suggesting them to us, or even inserting them right into our information streams, news feeds, lists, etc.

These filters automatically add bricks to the walls of our echo chambers, distancing us from those who are different in significant ways.

The problem is that we don’t learn by simply agreeing with everyone and everything around us. We need to hear dissenting opinions because they force us to constantly re-examine and sharpen our own stances, giving us a better understanding of things. We have to learn how to interact with people who are different from us because that’s what life in the modern world is all about. Otherwise, our thinking becomes stale, and our society brittle. Frankly, we won’t last long like that.

What’s the answer? Oh, if only I knew. Whatever it is, I think it will have to come out of a change in our thinking and behaviour as humans, and not from more change in technology.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Gordon Cameron February 25, 2012 at 7:41 pm

Is it OK to agree with you on this Francis?

Not only has social media helped construct echo chambers, it has also helped speed up the spread of, and strengthen the glut of false, yet self-serving “truths” that get passed around within these sealed sheep pastures. It all reminds me of the old Cold War joke: If you tell a Communist something silly once, he’ll laugh; five times, he’ll hate you for it; and 10 times he’ll fight to the death in its defence. So we end up with crazies who think Obama is a Muslim and that Stephen Harper is going to ban gay marriage based on nothing more than the fact that those in their virtual flock are saying it’s so. Good luck telling them they’re wrong because no matter what real proof you offer them it just becomes either part of the conspiracy to cover up the truth or proof that you’ve been co-opted into the big lie.

It’s for those reasons that the dispassionate intermediation that quality media sources (yes, not all media sources created equal and some are more agitprop than news) can bring can be a gust of fresh air into the echo chambers. We need to call BS when something stinks, even when we agree with the underlying premise, and not get so drunk with our own power that we abuse our influence to our own ends.

In many ways Web 2.0 has not created the Agora of old where ideas were exchanged freely and debates were of the greatest of intellectual importance, but Agoraphobia where looking outside our little world view is terrifying and should be avoided at all cost.

Francis Wooby February 26, 2012 at 7:42 am

When is it OK to NOT agree with me?! 😉

You’re very right in that this sort of “sheeple” thinking allows the introduction of many accepted “truths” into our society, and that these manipulated false assumptions can lead to hard-boiled beliefs, and actions, political and otherwise.

You’re also right about the need for an objective media.

I would go further, though, in putting the onus on news organizations to break out of this idea that private business interests can fuel good journalism. Even taking the idea of bias out of the equation, you’re left with CNN, Fox, Global, CTV and even CBC, PBS and the BBC trying to make their news look sexy in order to gain audience share to boost advertising revenue.

How in the hell do you focus on the boring, but important stories, and go into actual assessment of both sides, when you’re trying to make everything sensational or shocking in order to get attention?

So where you say that “…some are more agitprop than news”, I would say we need a serious, academic analysis of the Canada/US news media landscape looking at factors such as the compressed timing, flaring visuals, urgent background music, inflammatory or exaggerated terminology and other elements we can turn into metrics. This would give us a more realistic picture of how many dispassionate, objective journalistic voice we have out there. My cynical guess is that there are very few.

News outlets have been ratcheting up the volume and dumbing down the content to make themselves more appealing well before the rise of the interactive Web.

Of course, in the end, neither social media nor journalism is to blame for people volunteering themselves for the cultural lobotomy going on, turning us all into “sheeple.”

Gordon Cameron February 26, 2012 at 1:10 pm

You’ve hit on one of the central challenges what we in the media face – namely how to get the audience to pay attention to things we feel they need to know in spite of the fact they can be deadly boring.

Personally, I don’t give two hoots about which starlet was seen at what club wearing what dress and drinking what drink. However, people many do. The danger the mainstream media faces if we secede that ground to the “People” and “Entertainment Weekly”-ies of the world is that that segment of the population will use their “news and information time” not to look at the real news but rather the specialist publications/websites that cater more to their interests. (I would argue that shows like Jon Stewart and Colbert Report can have a similarly pernicious impact on those who actually want news.) The theory is, that if we run some of the softer stuff we’ll attract the non-news readers who might read some of the actual News on their way to the Lady Gaga story. (Yes, I understand that there is also a commercial argument here as well. One of my colleagues once told me that he loved when country music stars died as he knew he’d sell a whole lot of extra copies.) Unfortunately, pages or airtime given over to the softer stuff means fewer pages or minutes for the big stories of the day.

As far as over hyping goes, you’re right it can get ridiculous. It always reminds me of the Mad TV sketch “Windstorm 97” ( Now that’s good satire.

Francis Wooby February 28, 2012 at 6:04 am

I guess I’d never considered the angle of the journalists trying to preserve and disseminate hard news using the lure of fluff. Maybe the intentions are noble, but I’m not sure that it’s a very sound strategy, effective in reaching either objective. Also, how many journalists are involved with making operational decisions now based on journalistic objectives? As you and I have discussed before, I’ve always had a very difficult time swallowing the notion that actual journalism can be both a business and a service/art simultaneously. This is more like having two heads than wearing two hats. The former is awkward, the latter is impossible.

Dan Hilchey September 14, 2012 at 7:59 am

Couldn’t agree more. Human beings have more opportunities than ever before to interact with people who have different views, experiences, ideas, opinions…and instead they surround themselves with a safe little group of people who share a similar world view. It’s just like high school! If you feel strongly about something and never have any kind of meaningful interaction with anyone who disagrees with you…how are you ever going to change anyone’s mind? 🙂

Glad I found The W-lister, Francis. This is a very nice space you’ve created. Sorry for taking so long to get here. I know you’re a busy man, but I hope to read and hear more in the future.

Francis Wooby September 15, 2012 at 5:24 am

Thanks, @Dan! Great to have you on board!

I agree, it is very disappointing that we seem to drift naturally toward comfort at the expense of actually testing and improving our ideas, as well as at the expense of learning how to interact with one another.

Thus a world of weak ideas and millions of people unable to convey or understand them properly.

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