exec summ: we cluster and filter, follow and unfollow, shaping our online communities to our own world view. what happens to the perspective we need to think critically and create entities – relationships, organizations, economies – that rest on stable, balanced foundations?
a while back I posted on the similarity I saw between the zealousness of the twitter “in crowd” and howard dean’s campaign volunteers in 2003-04. (full disclosure: I was one of them). we dean stalwarts were baffled by voters’ continuing to choose other candidates by significant margins. we assumed howard couldn’t fail because we (the volunteers) all agreed he was the best candidate. twitter evangelists cite examples like the motrin moms to demonstrate how social media has the power to quickly turn a minor issue into a major pr disaster. recap for those who missed it: motrin ran an ad that either insulted or made fun of (depending on who you’re asking) the practice of carrying babies in slings and those who practice it. (more disclosure: I was a proud babywearer). twitter was all, uh, a-twitter about how motrin’s humiliation would be a warning for all brands.
dean wasn’t nominated. the vast majority of moms and motrin customers were never aware of the story. and that was after the story hit the mainstream media, what were we missing?
we were all so busy agreeing we were right we didn’t pay any attention to stuff going on outside the clubhouse doors. wait, though – this is not a post about jumping sharks or hype. dean’s campaign is in the history books. twitter and other social media, on the other hand, already are having an effect in the business (and political!) world. I have no doubt that this influence will grow rapidly. it’s not about hype. it’s about perspective.
in a march nytimes op-ed column about the decline of mainstream media, nicholas kristof says
“when we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.
nicholas negroponte of m.i.t.. has called this emerging news product ‘the daily me.’ And if that’s the trend, god save us from ourselves.
that’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. we may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.”
your friends are your friends because you agree on most things. in the real world, you can choose to overlook the nra sticker in her car window and focus on how much you agree that your kids’ homeroom teacher should wear longer skirts. in the emerging, virtual world of social networking, you can tweak your relationships even further to avoid uncommon ground completely. on facebook, you might have friends of circumstance – they went to the same high school, maybe, or they share your fondness for hannah montana. but the revelation of differences – you would be lawrence welk, he would be kurt cobain – is soft pedaled. and you have the option of seeing only his posts on kittens and not the ones from his “bring back corporal punishment” fan page.
polarization is in the news more and more – growing gaps between the haves and have-nots, or the left and the right. kristof worries that the inexorable decline of the mainstream media will create a nation or world of like-minded collectives who sustain themselves on the partial truths of their particular groupthink. I fear that the growth of social networking will exacerbate that trend, moving beyond just the news we consume to wholly immerse us in a world ruled by our particular preferences and prejudices. we cluster and filter, follow and unfollow, shaping our online communities to our own world view. what happens to the perspective we need to think critically and create entities – relationships, organizations, economies – that rest on stable, balanced foundations?
edward murrow was talking about politics when he said, “we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. when the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of america dies with it.” I think his point carries beyond the political landscape to everyday interaction in all its forms. I see a potential danger to “loyal opposition” in the trend toward using tools like facebook and twitter to build community. it’s about perspective. if you only talk to people that agree with you, you’re in trouble. or at the very least, missing out on things that will, as murrow said, sustain your soul.
make your koolaid electric
kristof ends his column by saying he’s off to read the op-ed page of the wall street journal. even if you maintain you can learn nothing from those who don’t share your views, heed the words of sun tzu: “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I challenge you to open your mind to some diversity of opinion – or at least your social network.