Social Media: Windows, Mirrors and Bubbles
If you are anything like me, you have engaged in a heated Facebook exchange once or twice. Recently I’ve had two interesting chats with old friends—one of whom I’ve lost touch with for over two decades who has political views on the complete other side of the spectrum than me. Rather than a reminder of how technology connects people from far afield, both exchanges reminded me of just how rare it is for me to bridge wide social distances. Where do you get to interact with people who are different from you?
We imagine a time when an open public square was where a community could find that exchange of ideas. As German sociologist Jürgen Habermas wrote, the public sphere is “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every public conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.” But we don’t have a social space like this today.
A likely place of assembly for many readers of the Everyday Sociology Blog is school: college is, for some, the first place people get to interact with folks who are from different socio-economic backgrounds. There are benefits to that: greater cross-class and cross-racial interactions create a more positive racial climate. And hopefully your university has a place students from all walks of life can have open dialogue and learn about underrepresented groups, on and off campus (as mine does, called Student Bridges). But not everyone has the opportunity to attend college, so our academic world is not the public sphere, either.
Digital spaces are closer. While the bar for access is lower than it is for a college degree, however, there is unequal access to the internet too: According to a recent White House report, 91% of Americans have access to high-speed internet, but only 71% have access at home, with lower rates for African Americans and Hispanics. This is what we call the digital divides. Furthermore, people do not use technology in the same way, although there are promising figures in regards to political participation in the U.S. The digital realm is not the public sphere, either.
Sociology is rife with examples of how people draw boundaries across different groups: from Michele Lamont’s influential book, Money, Morals and Manners, which details how male upper middle class managerial workers create symbolic distances across other groups, to Elijah Anderson’s powerful study of how residents in a primarily African American neighborhood differentiate each other as either ”street” or ”decent.”
The point is not that we are hard wired to create in-groups and out-groups, but that, unlike Lamont and Anderson’s research worlds, we might not realize that technology does this boundary work for us. Most spaces on the internet keep us siloed from other people: rather than windows into other worlds, our computer screens are mirrors of our own interests, reflecting our own beliefs.
Eli Pariser offers a slightly different metaphor. His book, The Filter Bubblehas a wonderful example of two friends searching the term “BP” and coming up with very different results that reflect their own political inclinations: one person gets investment news for British Petroleum, another gets news about British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Google, indeed, offers personalized searches for everyone, just like Netflix recommends movies that are like other movies you like. (For a far more detailed look at the development of search engines, specifically Google, read this.) If you try this with a friend, see if you get similar results for your searches.
And now we can return to Facebook and social networking in general: According to the Pew Research Internet Project, 83% of 18-29 year olds and 70% of 30-49 year olds use social networking sites. And as greater numbers of people get their news from these social media sites (and 1 out of 5 people do) and fewer get their news from conventional sources (e.g., newspapers, television, radio), we should be aware that the information we gleam works in a way that is similar to search engines: your previous experiences (in this case socializing and making friends, not your Google search history) shape the kinds of information you see. That means that you are receiving your news from your friends, people who are like you.
This is not some nefarious plot to polarize people politically, or to keep social groups separate. Social networking and search engines want to streamline your experiences, but most importantly, they want to maximize their advertising revenue.
The first half of Ethan Zuckerman’s book, Rewired explains the limits of American internet usage (e.g., overestimating their knowledge on international affairs) and the second half looking at how Americans can reengineer their internet usage. Holly Green offers suggestions to “break through your bubble,” and Astra Taylor offers a glimmer of hope for engagement in her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking back power and culture in the digital age.
One example of technology offering a medium for meeting random people is the somewhat-notorious Chatroulette, a website designed by a 17 year old Russian teenager. But a website called Tech Crunch found almost 50% of the people who use the site are American, 90% male, 70% in their 20s, and about 13% participate for some R-rated reason. (Although there have been some very fun, creative uses of the site). Wouldn’t it be great if there were a similar website that would take your socio-economic background and deliberately match you with someone different so you could have a serious conversation?