Anti-Social Media: Forsaking the Forest, for the Sake of Leaves
The advent of the Internet was considered a tentative reach towards an integrated world ...
A world as much connected by the frantic nervous system of crossing wires threading seas, as it was by a collective acknowledgement of mutual interests, fears and culture. Its bloom into an age of social media was this increasing cyber symbiosis on steroids. We would be one living, heaving organism of millions–if not billions–of parts all enjoying the same pool of information for nourishment. In a slow lurch towards holistic enlightenment, brighter tomorrows would be reached beyond the pale glow of computer screens.
The reality has proven itself to be if not colder and more stark than first hoped, at the very least a questionable distance from the Netopia first conspired at the world wide web’s inception. In fact, social media’s timeline offers an apt microcosm of the divorce between perception and reality. Is the World Economic Forum’s identification of pervasive “digital misinformation” as one of the largest threats to human society a hysterical overshoot, or a salient warning?
As users of the new wave, we partake in the consumption and dissemination of media in ways unlike any other generation before us. Not like the patient readers of telegram. Unlike the tenterhook’d listeners of radio fuzz. Not at all like the static drinkers of TV glare. All, largely, the passive recipients of mediated data. Today, we are the creators, curators and biased suppliers of information on an unprecedented scale. Through a gluttony of platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, we parse and pass on news at a haphazard rate.
This democratising of both ends of the communication exchange has produced a myriad of outcomes. It is at once freeing and castrating; reaffirming and fear-inducing. No outcome is more symptomatic of the skew than homophily. That is, the tendency to gravitate towards like-people, rather than empathising with people unlike you. The sprawling tendrils of social media platforms should afford us the ability to engage with novel ideas and peoples on a semi-regular basis. Despite the exponential opportunity for new experiences and connections, homophily predominates.
This begs a necessary question: have we been truly afforded the ubiquitous ability to relate? The myopic picture of social media would suggest ‘yes’. This version of the truth has played out in some spheres.
The Egyptian revolution of 2011 saw social media mobilised as a tool for political education and change. Communication scholar Merlyna Lim explored the notion of social media being seen to “broker connections between previously disconnected groups, to spread shared grievances beyond the small community of activist leaders, and to globalize the reach and appeal of the domestic movement for democratic change” in her Clicks, Cabs and Coffee Houses study into former president Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. Stories of localised brutality, corruption and injustice spread like folk-told wildfire and allowed for the igniting of a unified disaffection that engulfed the nation in revolution.
The viral sharing of videos of the extrajudicial executions of people of colour across the United States by police officers could be argued to have added a level of intimacy to the abhorrent details of the issue. A making mandatory of engagement with notions of the eminent violability of black lives. A discussion, widened. Those who otherwise would be kept sheltered from the guttural, emotional and pragmatic response inspired, reached. The degree to which people have been truly awakened and not desensitised into a blasé, dismissive approach is arguable.
How could we connect with the world like this, yet remain unplugged? A single pin drop in this ocean of potential should land us somewhere between stubborn ignorance and informed understanding. The ripples peter out and we remain voided of each other, under an illusion of connectivity.
Panning out to take in the whole landscape of social media reveals an uglier truth: increased tribalism, insular thought and a cynical complacency. Social networking’s interdependence is steeped in a faux-challenge of ideals. One that is heavy on like-mindedness, and births passivity with regularity.
In 2015 Facebook, if it were a country, became the “most populous” on Earth. Over 1.39 billion people across the globe log in each day to trawl News Feeds, sharing, liking and commenting their way towards contentedness. Were it a state, Facebook would be a failed one of gargantuan proportions. Its environment “is particularly suited for the emergence of polarized communities”, per a 2015 report led by Michela Del Vicario of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science. Intellectual nepotism and moral monopolies run rampant. Thousands of self-feeding whirlpools of derision brew through forums and feeds, unaware of one another and devoid of dissipation of their full brute force.
We subconsciously amass a crowd of ideological yes-men and yes-women, muting those who express a dissonance to ourselves. We gather around campfires consisting of what pulls us most towards our polar emotions. A furious, social media life-long session of brow beating and circle jerking ensues; at its conclusion we are left feeling emptily satisfied.
Backed into a corner by push notifications and an unassailable deluge of content, we seek to minimise marginal connections. Trimming our digital fat. The result is a more measured barrage. No less furious, but more reflective of our go-to thoughts and immediate concerns. The major monoliths of the web–Facebook, Google–have heard our hearts’ desires and innovated accordingly. They race to provide a tailored, streamlined online experience. This, while also striving to be considered “not just as communication tools, but also knowledge tools”, per Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg. Millennially speaking, 6 out of 10 of us see Facebook as just that, according to studies conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
But is personalised knowledge a true reflection of ‘knowledge’? The free domain of the internet, as it was intended, has become a quagmire of razor-sharp algorithms and codes. Users are surrounded by what internet activist Eli Pariser termed in 2011 a ‘filter bubble’; an entirely preordained environment stemming from their past browsing habits and search histories. We are complicit in its development. For each Terms of Agreement and web cookie we accept in a braindead shrug of indifference, we chip slowly away at our own agency. We sign off on our own surveillance in return for small pleasures, such as not having to remember our passwords or our card details. Consumption at the tip of a right-click.
It is one thing to filter content to the contours of our tastes in consumer products. It is overwhelmingly another to do the same to shape how we think. Like rats being led to the big cheese at the centre of our own individual, co-habiting Barnes mazes, we stumble through these recurrent cues. Invariably, we arrive at the same, unchallenged destination.
The Wall Street Journal’s Blue Feed, Red Feed curated media feeds comprising “very conservatively aligned” (Red) and “very liberal” (Blue) streams in a side-by-side comparison of the same world events. The resultant feeds looked like they were being reported from two parallel planet Earths, like some tripped out ode to the motif of Doublethink in George Orwell’s 1984. This difference of stance on the same issues would not be a problem had it not been that these streams often flow in a vacuum. The result of this heavily tailored content is a frenzied reaffirmation of pre-existing views which stymies intellectual flexibility and resilience. A divisive and hyped-up Kool Aid which we all sip in our own tangential ways leads us further away from any attempt at integration.
There is an argument to be made that these biases are inevitable. They are merely the fruits of the convenient categories we all make in order to play the odds in our interactions with others. A sort of cognitive shortcut which serves to make the quickest possible journey from uncomfortable thoughts to comfortable bedfellows. With this shortcut, the meat of the journey is excised, and with it the time in which we learn the meat of other people. Gone are the wrinkles that tell us we are not so dissimilar, and are motivated by much the same.
The difficulty with the ‘inevitable bias’ conclusion is that it makes a logical bottleneck of our supposed in-built blind spots to that which is different from us. It presupposes that we are unable to navigate these, and fall victim to them. It presupposes that civilisation is unable to trump nature.
Social media’s nature is a constructed one. Its corridors resemble a twisted version of London’s Speakers’ Corner, where the loudest voice triumphs over all and facts are made a mere footnote. This becomes more problematic when the loudest voice is not the one that speaks most clearly to us, but the one we don’t muffle with our bias.
Presently, it exists largely as a stagnant ecosystem, an echo chamber lacking challenge. Where confirmation bias validates us, social media amplifies. We are each and all rendered quasi-politicians, reporters and first responders. We seek less to press the flesh with those who oppose our views. Rather, we bay for a pound of it. In order to give thanks to our rabid, tailored opinions, we forsake the wider forest of the real and clutch onto the fickle leaves littering our subjective front yards.