In Our Own Bubble

2016June Bubble

The information superhighway took a turn for the worse, we now travel down it in our own comfortable, insulated and isolated bubble.

We can now get any information about any subject at any time online. There’s so much information available that we cannot consume it all, so we make selections. There are more than 500 million tweets per day, but only about 20,000 make it into my twitter timeline, and I only see a subset of those. There are 420,000,00 status updates on Facebook each day, a few hundred of those make it into my feed and I read only a few of those. Then there is Linkedin, YouTube, RSS (yes I still use RSS), and general news outlets.

It’s way too much, so we apply filters. A big part of the filter is who I follow or connect to, in general I follow people who have similar interests or views. As my major news sources are now online I’m unconsciously applying a filter to what news I get.

But there’s another filter being applied that we might not be aware of. The major platforms are also filtering what lands on our screen in our Facebook feed, and (coming soon) our Twitter feed, and our search results. Meaning that Google results are customised based on your search history, your browser, your language choice, your computer. Here’s how it works.

We know that news shapes our world view; in this TED talk Alisa Miller talks about the amount of time given to various news stories. As news organisations reduce costs and dismantle their international news bureaus the international coverage has reduced. She’s speaking from a US perspective, but a similar dynamic plays out in other countries.

If you add together the distortion in what is published, the “customised” news presented in social media and search, and our own filters in choosing who to follow and what to read, it’s fair to say that we’re living in a bubble. Throw into the mix the human tendency for confirmation bias and it’s easy to see that people become increasingly entrenched in their views, both less likely and less willing to hear evidence that doesn’t support their view.

In the last few weeks I’ve seen emotional discussion on politics from both sides of the Atlantic as the US heads into a presidential election later this year and Britain heads to a referendum, dubbed “Brexit“, later this week. It’s not pretty, in both cases it’s a polarised discussion.

It’s because of the level of polarisation, and the anger I’ve seen that I started digging into this. I’ve long thought that social media platforms were poor places for serious discussion for five reasons;

  1. Clutter; Facebook is a blend of photos of cuteness, personal confessions and travel photos. Right next to a photo of my niece walking a tightrope doesn’t seem to be the best place to compare a candidates track record on gun violence.
  2. Godwin’s Law; sooner or later someone is going to drop the N-word. Either of them.
  3. Reading Comprehension; sooner or later someone is going to misunderstand you, perhaps willfully.
  4. Not in Person: in person I could read the person’s body language to pick up on sarcasm or irony (better than in an online discussion)
  5. Asynchronous; nothing worse that waiting hours for a reply to your well-formed attack on a person’s point-of-view. (This should be understood as a tongue-in-cheek comment, see no. 3 above).

So I wasn’t surprised to discover that there is a known phenomenon called the “political spiral of silence“, which means that nuanced, thoughtful points-of-view which are likely to cover some of the middle ground are lost in the noise of social media.

The outcome is a debate so polarised that it’s destructive. How can we change this? What would it take to make your social media and search results more inclusive?

Start by reading opposing views, and having open discussions. We can agree to disagree, can’t we?

Image: Bubbles  | Michael Carson  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

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