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The Problem With Social Networks

For all that we love about social networks, there is a glaring problem we must address: the very platforms that bring us together, also keep us apart.

THE CURRENT DYNAMIC

Before we experienced a total proliferation of media choices – before cable television, specialized websites and Google news feeds gave way to social networking streams – we were compelled to consume information meant for the masses.

In the 1960s and 70s, Americans learned about important news from sources like Walter Cronkite on CBS.  In the 1980s, we tuned-in for nightly sports scores on SportsCenter.  Even our political pundits – those who shared their opinions with a following well before we all did – delivered their product in broad forums such as Meet The Press or Crossfire.

Back then: the various networks and news outlets scheduled the programs and chose the stories & guests.  Today: we do that job for ourselves.  We are each our own network executive that green light what we see.

Due in large part to our use of social channels, we can now choose the particular outlets we want to see in our feeds each day.  If someone cares deeply about college football, alternative energy or Justin Bieber, their Twitter feed can deliver dozens of different sources on each of those subjects – and potentially, just on those subjects.

Net-net: We can each create incredibly targeted and customized feeds depending on our tastes and interests.

WHY IS THIS A PROBLEM?

As we pick and choose the various sources of information we care most about, those sources deliver a stream of information that fits into our narrative of choice.  While that can be good, it also has downside implications for which we should be aware – especially now in the middle of an important political season.

Here is an example.  I have a Facebook friend who is a gun owner.  I detest guns.  In fact, I post about this point-of-view whenever our country experiences another high-profile shooting.  This friend often times replies to my posts with a rebuttal of his own (something to the effect of: guns don’t kill people, people kill people).  It riles me when he does this – to the point that I have considered unfriending him.  I typically think to myself: What right does he have to populate my news feed with his ignorance?

I am not alone.  We are increasingly removing voices that make us uncomfortable.  According to a recent study, the single biggest reason that people unfriend one another on Facebook is due to comments that the unfriender finds polarizing – the study suggests that quite often these polarizing comments are political in nature.

We tend to subscribe to (and maintain) sources of information that reaffirm our thinking rather than challenge our beliefs.  We follow streams on: Facebook to hear stories that keep us current with the friends we already have; on Twitter to provide us with information we use as currency with our colleagues; on LinkedIn to anchor us to our chosen careers; on Pinterest to see images that appeal to us; on Tumblr to be impressed by articulations of topics for which we care.

While it is human nature to gravitate towards people who share common interests and values, we have never before received so much of our information – including hard core news – from these very sources.  It is becoming more difficult to be persuaded by outside influence.  We setup a world that we care about and, at times, shut the rest of it out.

2012: A POLITICAL ODDESY

My first job out of college was at a political consulting firm.  I remember learning a rule-of-thumb early on in campaigns: 40% of the electorate will definitely vote for your candidate and 40% will never vote for your candidate – it is the 20% in the middle that you must persuade.  Based on polls during the last two Presidential election cycles, there is good reason to believe that today this rule should probably be expressed as 45/45/10.  Or worse.

Consuming greater portions of our content diet on social networks is certainly driving part of this polarization.  We filter in that which provides us with the short-term stimulus we need to make us feel validated and arm us with the social currency to share amongst our friends and followers.  We filter out everything that makes us think harder than we may want to, lest it not fit into the memes that we have set for ourselves.

As we consider how we gather information in an election year, we should be mindful of how exposed we are to the content that may persuade us.  We should – in theory, anyway – be responsible for listening to all sides before we make our judgment.

Social networks mirror democracy itself.  It is a very American ideal to choose what we consume and how we consume it.  Yet like our own democracy, we must test ourselves regularly to ensure we are doing it correctly.

  • http://gplus.to/gplustips Ryan Crowe

    Sorry, I’m not buying the premise that being on social networks and having access to information and view points is a problem. It seems to me that now we have the ability to go beyond our limited social circles and 4 or 5 newspapers where we’re getting news from journalists… the only opinions and perspectives coming from others were limited to a page spread entitled ‘Letters to the Editor’.

    People that turned a blind eye to dissenting opinions before digital social networking are going to do the same on digital social networking. That’s just how that person is going to roll. That’s just how they are. Before, they might have the excuse – “Well, I didn’t know anything else… I was surrounded by people with the same opinion. That’s how I grew up.” – now, they don’t have that excuse – information is available at one’s fingertips. All they have to do is want to look for it… there’s the rub, the motivation to allow others to challenge their views, or for them to challenge their own views.

    C’mon. This isn’t about social media – if anything you should be lauding the ability to have access to the aforementioned information – not damning it because people are choosing to remain obstinate.

    The problem with social media? People have more to ignore, maybe. They have to work harder to curate their narrow horizons. But social media is a previously non-existent gateway… not a new door to be shut.

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