The Rise of Social Media Tribes & The Collapse of Discourse

Civility is not saying negative or harsh things. It is not the absence of critical analysis. It is the manner in which we are sharing this territorial freedom of political discussion. If our discourse is yelled and screamed and interrupted and patronized, that’s uncivil. — Richard Dreyfuss

Recently, I found myself listening to a random News item; these words caught my attention.

I don’t recall who said it as it was meant as backdrop noise as I tidied up, and I also noted I had heard these sentiments at least six times this week.

What has happened to discourse?

I use the word discourse, not in any hifalutin manner, but it is the word that subsumes all the ways in which we communicate as humans? And as I find myself unplugging more from the socio-political noise of our southern neighbour, I can’t help but be concerned for the future of what it means to have a variety of views, especially political ones.

This reflection took me back to first-year Philosophy, where it was commonplace to debate controversial concepts, and all emerge wiser than we had started. Today this manner of arriving at a well-discussed conclusion, on anything, has all but gone out the window. From the crassness of current rap culture — to the racial toned comment sections on everything and anything — to the debased political of polarity, nowhere is this as vibrant than social media.

The 2106 US election underscored this breakdown for me, where social media reared its ugly head, encouraging the collapse of human communication — pitting humans as foreign to each other, and blending into hyper-sensitive tribal groups. And as a mild user of social media, I took stock of my behaviour to ensure I was not getting into the noisy black void.

Up to this point, I had allowed social media algorithms to goad and guide me as it pleases — yes, I will “like” this and not that; “oh another social media person — just like me.”

Like!

But should we measure these seemingly simple actions? What does our rapid response, fuel by endorphins, mean? How do algorithms contribute to the discourse of Social media?

Social media networks are built around continuously evolving algorithms and complex computer equations that auto filter the content presented to us. Our perception of reality is distorted; worse still, the built-in algorithmic mechanism only serves to exponentially filter and simplify the complex web of human understanding to understand where to place us socially and how to present us to others. For example, the more niche your interest, the less likely you are to see a wider variety of people and interests — meaning, the wider the gap, the less likely you will ever experience worldviews different from yours. You must actively seek it.

Ostensibly, algorithms thrust us into tribes, with a lack of appreciation for some of the minor tribal affiliations, that while it reflects one side of our reality, it deflects others.

Social media etiquette ( via option buttons) suggests that we unfollow/ unfriend people whose views may be different from ours, by the mere availability of such functions seen in reductionist “like” buttons. We can most certainly be friends, but if we disagree, then we cannot be friends? And here is an option button to do so. What does that mean for the future of human discourse?

Social media sites show us the things we approve of and hide the things we don’t to keep us coming back — makes sense, right?

In a telecast video, Mark Zuckerberg describes how Facebook’s News Feed

Okay, I thought — I like personalized things, but is too much personalization a good thing? If it means that it closes the door to thoughts that collide with mine, then is it? I didn’t give it much thought at the time of listening to Zuckerberg, but three days later, it haunted me, and I thought my online life is no reflection of my real life. It is a safe space — a bubble or echo chamber reflecting a self-absorbed world.

In the age of Social media, people, without realizing it, begin to assemble around familiarity and will gravitate to those people who remind them of themselves or the people they know. I am no different. In any given social media interaction, I make a flash decision whether someone is like me and more likely to agree with my views. Based on this innate instinct, I decide — is this someone I should follow? Will they like my opinions? Will we make good virtual pals.

Recently, however — and fully aware of how algorithms work, I noted that all of the recommended people to follow — be it on my reading platforms or Instagram is all of the same. In real life, I have a full circle of friends. This is not reflective of my feed suggestions; I have friends of all ethnicities — varying education levels — varying political leanings, but somehow my social media experience keeps thrusting me into comfortable spaces of familiarity. I know I am partly to blame, and that needed changing.

I started posting more of my varied interests like gardening and animals and country living, outside of the regular things I use posted — design and food. Up to this point, I also follow a slew of left-leaning publications. And clearly, of course, a profile of me emerges just by writing this. But while this online version of me appears, it reflects a lot of me but also deflects a lot of who I am. So, I wanted to challenge the algorithm and seek other voices on my social media feed and stimulate a spectrum of views because they matter to my understanding of the world.

I also began to follow people who share my passion, which, may, in turn, annoy even my best friend. I love hip hop and rap; she hates it. By extending a virtual nod at hip hop and rap culture sometimes attracts people, with whom I may not hang out in real life, but I appreciate their hyper-focus on rap culture, which sometimes may offend me. In some instances, I am sure that some of the people whom I follow have differing political views. And that, to some extent, is acceptable.

I should take this moment to add that perhaps my Canadian roots add to my flexibility in this regard; I oscillate from far left to center politically, depending on the candidate, as do most people I know. My best friend of 23 years and I do not always vote the same. But we agree to disagree. Unlike Americans, Canadians also have a dominant three-party system that makes the strict political leanings less likely, unless you share a narrowly focused ideology that refuses any middle ground.

But back to the story.

Fighting the breakdown of discourse

It was at this intersection of my social media confluence that I began to meet the most interesting people, whom I would never think of approaching in real life. I can get past the biker gear to see the passionate middle-aged gardener who shares my garden passions — or the Southern Belle, with whom I may not necessarily have the same lived experiences. Still, we both appreciate the delicate pink of a particular rose #thebestthingever. Perhaps other overlaps and friends may not appeal to me, but we will always have roses, I think.

While social media has fueled the breakdown of communication and shared understanding, we can all help counter this unnatural unfolding of the human condition. In these short and brief virtual social connections, a rational understanding transpires, however fleeting. Still, it makes me wonder — how tribalism is way often propagated by social media algorithms that, in so doing, degrades our opportunities and predilection to open discourse — especially in areas where we may disagree. In connecting with “Other,” we begin to propagate “difference” and, in so doing, an appreciation and growth of human familiarity.

Undoubtedly, many have written on the general topic of discourse, most often cited classically is Aristotle, who writes:

We cannot let algorithmically contrived virtual representation of who we are, lead human discourse. It requires looking past a User Interface, representing a decontextualized instance of another human being in virtual space — as if disembodied. We must take active measures to fight the algorithms that enable the contrived presentations of who we are and include some of the voices that may not always sound like us or make us feel good.

::: ABOUT KEM-LAURIN

I am a deliberate Post — Corporate Product User Experience & Content Strategist, working a variety of project types that challenge traditional Design Thinking and Strategy. I write on a wide range of topics from Work Futures, Current issues as well as to Branding — primarily topics on the confluence of Society — Design & Technology.

I am also the author of the book User Experience in the Age of Sustainability and Muse in Chief at kemlaurin.com. You can also check me out on LinkedIn and Instagram. I love creating digital content and enabling small brands and start-ups. To balance the virtual design work I do, I also side hustle in digital retail, curating stuff I like from time to time. Latest things I curate. My visual musing can be found on http://www.instagram.com/kemlaurin/Insta

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Founder @ iNNOVATION Life Labs

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