Like many folks I have a Facebook account. I check Facebook on the iPad daily – it is great to keep up to date with the whereabouts of my friends, follow various interests, and to occasionally share notable events with my social circle as well. And these are all common ways in which social media adds value to many of our lives as individuals. But at the FirstRain lunch table the other day we also did some grousing about some of the shared pet peeves in our social media lives as well: the over-posters (5-10 posts an hour, do these people do anything else?), the way-too-personal posters (did I need to know about the re-appearance of your lunch?), the aggressive-posters (would you make that sarcastic comment at a podium in front of 300 of your friends, family and associates? Well you just did), and the simple fact that keeping connected via Social Media can eat significantly into your day, pushing out time spent watching news, or other methods for keeping up to date.
But after thinking about how time consuming these platforms can be, I also started to wonder if something counter-logical is going on. Social Media sites like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to connect with friends and co-workers. It also makes it really easy to reach out and make friends with like-minded people across the country and the globe. At face value, they seem to be great tools to associate with people interested in the same things you are. My sister, for instance knits socks (very fancy socks!) and she uses the Web to be part of a community of sock knitters, to share patterns, post pictures and discuss types of yarn, which significantly enhances her enjoyment.
Thinking more broadly, however, even the best of intentions can result in undesirable outcomes. The Web—and Social Media in particular— can make it easy to cocoon oneself in a warm environment of like-minded people. If I do not like what a person is saying I can easily tune-them out. The posts I see on my Facebook newsfeed are filtered based on who I have looked at or commented on in the past. Over time it is all too easy to unconsciously create an environment of like-minded people, who have similar views, and reinforce each other’s behavior. In a circle of fancy sock knitters, this is great, but when mapping this to politics, demographics or any political agenda item, such as gay marriage, the results are less wholesome. On the political front, if Democrats only hang out with other Democrats, and Republicans only hang out with other Republicans, each reading the news from their respective biased sources, each reinforcing their own perspective on events, the result is polarization.
In the past, before the time of the Web and social media platforms, we had to co-exist with the people living around us, or working with us. News outlets were fewer and had to be broad-based. Now we can choose from a multitude of channels, and create our own custom filters. We now have the luxury to only hear what we want to hear. Sharing this with my co-worker, Ash, it turns out that we’re not the only people questioning the impacts of the web. Eli Pariser, in his book The Filter Bubble, articulates this problem (he also did a great Ted talk on this subject: https://on.ted.com/9BwR). Rather than having to live in the physical community with people around us, we unconsciously end up “opting-out” of reality and “opting-in” to a narrow view of the world defined by our friends and filters.
Many years ago a group of like-minded people came together in Jonestown. They isolated themselves from a diversity of views, associated solely with each other, self-reinforced each other views and allowed their worldview to become dominated by a loud and extreme fringe. Eventually, when their leader told them to drink the cyanide-laden Kool-Aid, 918 people died. Clearly, this is an extreme example, but it really is illustrative of how philosophical isolation and the filtering out other views and interactions can lead to extremely unfortunate choices.
What does this mean in the context of the business world? Obviously, mass suicide is a little extreme. But, the cautionary message still applies. Are people obtaining the necessary information they need to make the right business decisions? It’s very possible that valuable information is not being received due to filtering. The beauty of social media is that it allows access to business intelligence that was not accessible years ago. In order to make the best business choices, professionals must look beyond the people and news they WANT to follow, and direct their focus to the channels they NEED to follow.
Are we entering an era of extreme polarization? Working in the Bay Area, I hope not. The wide diverse backgrounds, ideology and experience of the people in this region are something I value greatly. To travel, and experience how different people live is a great privilege. It’s important that we as Web users take the initiative to expand our bubble beyond our closest circles. Use social media to track areas you wouldn’t have initially thought you’d be interested in. Follow the newscasters and politicians you disagree with, and maybe even hate. Seek out opinions from smart people different than yourself. I see richness in diversity and believe it creates stronger solutions for everyone over the long term.