The whirlpool effect of social media

Today it’s time for me to do what I do best: blame the media for everything. For a while I thought social media were better than other media such as newspapers and television, but it’s really, really not. The one thing that made social media stand out – a certain sense of objectivity, because everybody has a voice and you can see all the different views on the subject instead of just the one a certain channel shows – is actually quite the opposite. Yes, all the different views may be there, but the social media don’t show you all of it. They are programmed to show you only what you like to see, perhaps the most subjective it can get.

The way social media work is easy to explain. According to what you have showed an interest in before, what your contacts like to see, and what people who are similar to you (age, sex, occupation, et cetera) enjoy, the websites and apps pick and choose things to recommend. The goal is to get you to look at whatever they are offering, so they try to show you only what you would probably want to see. There is a high chance that your personal contacts think similar to you, and the pages you follow also think the same (otherwise you probably wouldn’t have followed them). With this in mind we can begin to see that the social media we’re exposed to leans towards one direction – the one we already leaned towards before.

The thing about social media, and social networks in particular, is that they enable people to express their opinion. Among the cat videos and holiday pictures we tend to see a lot of opinions, especially in the times of political debates. Some people do it more than others, but that has a reason. Social media is all about extremes: if people post about their opinion, it’s usually not a moderate one. They believe in it so much that they want the world to know, and perhaps change other people’s opinions too. What we end up seeing is a collection of opinions that don’t only lean towards the direction we prefer, but seem to be the extreme versions of the opinions we already had.

To me, a social network seems to be a great big ocean with waves going in all directions, but with a few strong whirlpools that force you to look at anything that flows the same way. At this moment you may be on the edge of the whirlpool, barely affected by it, or in the strong centre that keeps the whirlpool going. The point remains that there is nothing you can do to prevent getting dragged towards the centre. Hearing the same opinion over and over will cause you to believe it’s true. It’ll cause you to start expressing similar opinions to the ones you hear so much. It may even cause you to dislike people who move the other way.

This ‘whirlpool effect’ seems to be a bad thing to me. A lot of people use social media as their primary news source, blissfully unaware of how skewed it actually is. Like other media, it forces people to accept the image they are shown. The whirlpools feed themselves, growing stronger every day, until all we are left with is people who don’t want to see the faces of people in other whirlpools anymore.

Social media doesn’t bring people together. It divides them.

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