A “Shared” Web of Relations: The Irony of Social Media
Beyond growing levels of narcissism, social norms are changing as technology use becomes more commonplace. Using your smartphone while at dinner with others is not unusual. Checking your e-mail while in line for coffee is not unusual. Instead of connecting with those close to us, we are disconnecting, ironically, by using social media. This has been called “empathic fragmentation” by Cliff Nass (2010). Additionally, if digital natives are constantly multitasking, then this may affect both the development of empathic ability over time and the level of attention one commits to empathic communication in everyday life. Consistently ignoring real-life others while engaging online with faraway others or mobile games detracts from solidarity, bias mitigation, empathy and compassion.
To have constructive cooperation, one must be able to leverage a feeling of solidarity that acknowledges the otherness of the other in a positive way.
“The bond to the group thus implies in an indirect but almost necessary way, the bond to other individuals; when the group ideal is only a particular manifestation of the human ideal – when the citizen ideal merges in large measure with the generic ideal of mankind – then it is to man qua man that we are bound, at the same time feeling more strongly linked with those in whom we find most clearly our society’s particular conception of humanity.”
“Society’s particular conception of humanity” is fundamentally changing and is doing so faster than research can uncover. Not only does code affect how one feels about their self, but it can also affect how they feel about others in a myriad of ways, especially in the sense of feeling a connection or sense of solidarity with another person. Connection as a general term has several meanings, but in the case of interpersonal communication we can reframe connection to another as an other-oriented concept that affects how much regard someone has for another’s feelings. A sense of connection can either come from acknowledging someone else’s place within a common humanity (akin to solidarity) or feeling like they are similar to one’s self along some salient dimension (familiarity). This concept differs by culture, but in general people differentiate between the “self” and the “other” (Triandis, 1980). In Western cultures, it has been noted that the self is a concrete and relatively non-inclusive entity. An individual represents one’s “self.” Alternately, Eastern cultures have been noted to have a larger sense of self, which many include close family members, friends, and even bosses. The key to empathy and solidarity is extending this sense of self to include strangers. Brunkhorst describes the fundamental problem, borrowing a phrase from Hegel, “The central difficulty with a moral progress (Fortschritt) in the name of freedom is ‘the possibility of its universalization i.e. the shift from solidarity among friends to solidarity with strangers.’” Solidarity with strangers, as a form of perceived connection, represents the basis of a universalized moral progress.
The fact that we can develop a sense of connection with someone we have never met has been well established in the literature (Lombard and Ditton, Rafaeli, Parks and Floyd, etc.). As this type of connection is created primarily during a cognitive process, it can be called sociomental (Chayko and Zerubarel, 1993). Connection is important because it affords a pathway for empathy, which is important for prosocial behavior. The role of empathy in prosocial behavior has been acknowledged by various fields, including philosophy (Hume, 1777/1966), psychology (Hoffman, 1975; Staub, 1979), and by Buddhist doctrine. While it was historically seen as the realm of parents and family (in society at large) to instill compassion and empathy, several proponents have come to the fore regarding compassion augmentation based in the realm of science, including the Dalai Lama, Lappé, and Ekman.
From an early age, most of us have this ability to recognize the emotions of others because evolutionary biology favored this adaptation and ensured that humans propagated this ability (Preston & de Waal, 2002). Socialization is required for the full development of this faculty and, while developing emotional intelligence through socialization occurs during our entire lives, the most significant gains occur during one’s early years (Eisenberg, 2002). Additionally, the limited capacity information-processing model of mediated messages shows that human beings can only process a certain amount of information and only a portion of that information will be stored in long term memory (Lang, 2000). Empathy requires attention that demands a certain amount of cognitive effort, and, as a mediated construct, the “bandwidth” in social media expressions is lower than with face-to-face contact. Any impediment to socialization, especially during one’s formative years, might be a long-term detriment to solidarity with non familiar or marginalized others. This means that the implications for young people whose attention is more scattered would be more severe than for those adults who have already developed a certain level of emotional intelligence, but adults, for better or worse, are still affected.
Phil Zimbardo has recently talked about this topic in his “Demise of Guys?” TED Talk. In this speech, he speculated that boys “do not know the language of face contact” partly because of the 10,000+ hours the average boy will spend playing video games by the time he is 21 years of age. They are more socially awkward and shy, with broader implications for progress in school and in intimate relationships. Preferring video games to face-to-face contact may inhibit the development of emotional intelligence. This may not seem like a significant alteration to humanity, but if a large enough group of young people decide to stay home and surf the internet rather than find a partner and have a family, then population growth can decline. Anita Rani wrote for the BBC, “Unless something happens to boost Japan’s birth rate, its population will shrink by a third between now and 2060.”
Current digital social technologies also serve to reinforce one’s beliefs and alienate others’ beliefs. The term the “digital divide” has been used in reference to the divide between those with access to computers and the internet and those without such access. This digital divide symbolically eliminates the poor and marginalized from our collective sense of humanity as we more closely associate our “particular conception of humanity” as those who are online and with whom we interact with through that medium. However, there is another divide being caused by technology use, and that is the empathetic divide between people online who are not a part of the same digital community, that is those who do not interact with each other as a result of codified selection criteria or as a lack of trust, desire, and curiosity to connect with others who are not in their in-group.
Perhaps more pervasive and insidious is the way that information is organized online and the place that algorithms and design decisions play in which information we are exposed to. Our circle of acquaintances actually becomes more rigid and close-minded through these social networks. In their paper called “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks”, Miller McPherson and his fellow researchers describe how we tend to connect with people who are already like us and that ties with “nonsimilar individuals” dissolve at a high rate, which promotes online cliques. Social networks actually limit our social world. Looking at this phenomena at face value, it seems innocuous, but one has to think beyond what they see to understand the implications of what they are not exposed to. As a self-reinforcing system, social media applications design for homophily and the expectations connected to it. This leads to information ghettos, balkanization, polarization, and a systemic ignorance of intersectionality.
Information silos or ghettos form when we are only exposed to that information we already agree with. By “rewarding” clicks and likes with information that is similar, opinions of others, outside belief systems, and competing explanations are biased against. This leads to clique formation or balkanization of belief systems. In other words, talking things over with friends online cannot free you from prejudices and preconceptions that are held by the entire group. This balkanization concretizes identity definitions which further polarizes individuals according to which element of their ego or identity is the most salient and to which one has the strongest attachment. At its most extreme, victimization and revenge narratives develop when chronic polarization belies coming to an agreement through deliberative interventions.
Online spaces can act to magnify real-world troubles and may lead to new problems. While online environments have been theorized to represent a “democratic” space, in-group/out-group distinctions still persist (Haraway, 1985). In fact, new distinctions are sometimes made that elicit bullying and prejudicial treatment. In World of Warcraft, for example, “racism” against dwarves is a not an uncommon experience, even though each player gets to choose the race of their avatar and it should therefore be a moot distinction. Some online communities have used anonymous avatars to circumvent possible implications of real-world lives being represented online with success.
Subtle race biases have also been found in television programming that can harm compassion (Weisbuch et al., 2009). The prevalence, overall, of violent television programming, not just news, is damaging to compassion and altruism (Wilson, 2002).
If television is one’s main exposure to the “outside world” then these disproportionate views may cause one to perceive minority groups (Weisbuch et al., 2009) and the elderly as less belonging to one’s in-group and less deserving of solidarity.