A vortex of self: being connected to everyone has narrowed our horizons
Not too long ago most people would have consumed the news either in printed form or at 6 o’clock on the BBC. We would also have been lucky to share more than an annual christmas card with those people we didn’t see regularly due to work, school, church or some other social situation. These days however, we have hundreds, or even thousands, of friends on facebook or followers on twitter or instagram, and we, along with our friends, are now the disseminators of news to each other.
What this all means is two-fold. Firstly, we have so much choice of who are friends are - one’s we really keep up with properly (my guess is that it’s more than a couple and less than 20 for most of us) - that we naturally gather around us those people most like us. This means that our friendship groups contain much the same interests, political opinions and theological positions, much more so than friendships that are more based on situation. It is a surprise to many, but we have more homogenous social circles now, in our age of diversity, than we did before the advent of social media. My social feed is racially diverse and gender balanced with numerous nations represented but I doubt it’s particularly socially, intellectually, theologically or politically so.
This leads us onto the second point. Our social groups, which are made up of people like us, are sharing news, editorials and stories that they like to read. On the face of it this seems like a good thing. My social feed is filled with stories I’m interested in. The issue is, without an inlet from somewhere else we are living in a walled garden of our own creation.
For example, 2016 saw two shocking popular votes. First, Brexit where my feed was 70% Remain - as was the news I saw. And secondly, the US Presidential Elections where my feed was overwhelmingly blue. This website does a great job of showing us the “echo chambers” our feeds can create.
And this issue is not helped by the social networks themselves. Their job, believe it or not, is not to help you and your pals to connect, but to get you to spend more time on their sites and apps, seeing more adverts and getting them more money. And so part of doing that is showing you what they think you want to see. For example Facebook shows me numerous programming related adverts and an disproportionate number of posts from the vinyl record collectors group I’m part of. A recent quote I read is appropriate “if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold”, I think that’s important when we engage with social media.
So what do we do?
I’m making a conscious effort to read more widely. For me that means getting off social media and going straight to the news outlets. What I probably should be doing is making sure I read from outlets on all sides of political debate and trying to read widely on social and theological issues. It’s not always easy, especially when it takes time.
Please weigh in in the comments, I’m particularly interested to hear how people try and peek over the wall of the garden.