This is just a quick shoutout of a video I found interesting this week: The Internet is Worse Than Ever by Kurzgesagt. Why is it interesting? Because it puts a common trope about social media and why it ruins society on its head – and that in a way that has some seriously interesting consequences in how we think about ourselves and the internet. First, the video, you will find a summary as well as my take on it below.
Short-ish Summary: It's Social Sorting, not the Filter Bubble
Social media is divisive and destroys society, but not for the reason that is often believed – the filter bubble. The filter bubble is the idea that search algorithms and social media exposes individuals to content that aligns with their already existing beliefs and preferences, so they see less contrasting viewpoints and information. As a result, people become isolated in their own cultural or ideological bubbles. Other input is "filtered out", people and society become more and more divided, collapse, end of the world. Etc.
There is only one problem: Research seems to show the proverbial filter bubble doesn't actually exist online, but offline. In other words: The filter bubble is the real world! People encounter opposing views more often online than offline. So if the internet is actually confronting us with a broad range of views and information, how come that we understand each other less and less?
Kurzgesagt offers a neat explanation based on the evolutionary fact that we did not evolve to understand reality, but to enter and maintain social structures. Our brains work on two basic heuristics: a) who is close to us is similar to us and b) who is similar to us is good and who is not similar to us is, well, not good. My village good, your village bad. This was a good heuristic, because it worked reasonably well. People from the same village were likely to share the same religion, tastes for food, political leanings, morals and ethics etc. And if there was disagreement about one thing, there usually was enough "social glue" based on those other things to keep us together (usually is doing some heavy lifting here). This even kept working as societies got bigger and more complex. The Romans did as the Romans did – and if you live in New York, you are likely to root for the Yankees, while in LA you might disagree about Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump, but still come together to watch the Dodgers.
Things changed about 20 years ago with the advent of the internet, especially with social media. Here we meet people we disagree with, but we do not have the locally developed social glue that helps us to stick together. If we look at the brain as a in-group/out-group sorting machine, their opinion about Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump becomes their defining personality trait – after all, that's all you know and all your interaction is about. You put them in the bucket of people you don't like and don't need to take seriously. Something similar happens with people we agree with. If you are passionate about politics, you are likely to have online friends that are mainly defined by them being on your team. You put them in the bucket for people you like and take seriously. The term for this process explained by Kurzgesagt is social sorting.
Now add how social media sites want to keep us "engaged" for as long as possible and the observation that anger is one of the most engaging feelings. So the best strategy is not just to show us disagreement, but the worst disagreement possible. And our brains keep sorting everyone who disagrees with us into one bucket and everyone who agrees with us into the other – so everyone we disagree with is associated with all of the worst opinions we have ever heard. Someone likes country music? Probably a MAGA guy who isn't perturbed by school shootings and would support a Christian-fundamentalist dictatorship under Trump. Someone supports environmental regulations? They are probably fine with looting inner cities and trans-women praying on young girls in public bathrooms! The other bucket gets more and more distorted until everyone in it appears as a caricature, unbelievable evil or stupid, basically incomprehensible. People and society become more and more divided, collapse, end of the world. Etc.
My Take on This: Interesting Look in the Mirror
I enjoy how much this goes against the trope of the filter bubble that I had totally bought into. I'm not sure, if the filter bubble concept is really obsolete, but the video makes me want to look into it. And I do think that the idea of "social sorting + social media algorithms" as driver behind social divide has merit. It seems plausible. And there is something really irksome about the filter bubble idea. I try to consume news and information from many sources and to really listen to opposing views. So one could assume that, if the filter bubble is the problem, our slow decay into madness isn't my responsibility, but the fault of the "the others". You know ... those people ... the ones not diversifying their media diet. The stupid ones. Not the clever ones. Like me. In other words: The filter bubble is an explanation that is perfectly suited for putting the blame on the other side. If "they" would just consume more diverse sources of information (like I do), they'd certainly see the light. After all, I'm reading "their" news and still think it's bullshit. I did see both sides of the story, it's just that mine is right!
In contrast to that, social sorting is a mechanism that more invites us to look at ourself. If I take myself as an example again: It is utterly baffling to me how someone could possibly vote for Trump. The divide seems to be total. But reflecting on how my perception of the "MAGA people" is shaped by me remembering the worst of the worst opens up the possibility to remember that not everyone in the MAGA movement is that guy:
That doesn't mean I agree with voting for Trump (I'm kinda against fascists and by now he really has earned the label), but it reminds me that there are likely reasons to vote for him that are not just evil, ill-informed or stupid.
Another thing I like about the idea of social sorting (in a darkly amused way) is that it changes the mechanism, but not the outcome: Social media is still destroying society. Just for different reasons than we thought. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. New day, same shit.
All of that being said, I'm not yet convinced that the idea of the filter bubble (or something like it) is really dead. Go and watch two videos about flat earth on your YouTube channel and then observe the channel being taken over by weird stuff. It is hard to believe recommendation algorithms do not have a huge impact on us that is not expressed in the idea of social sorting. Maybe the idea of a filter bubble is too blunt of a concept, but I wouldn't dismiss it outright. It's something to look into – but as this is supposed to be a quick article, I'm not going to do it today.
For anyone wanting to dive deeper right now, here is the link to the paper the Kurzgesagt video was based on.