We all know the apocryphal joke about opinions and a**holes. There’s a grain of truth in every joke and at an individual level, the value of your opinion does indeed diminish rapidly as you move radially outward in your social and professional universe, with its importance the maximum at the center of that universe, where you reside. This means that your opinion is paramount for you, and then pretty important for those closest to you, and as the separation of others from you increases, so does the value of your opinion dramatically decrease.
Now let’s look a little deeper into this otherwise rather self-evident sociological reality.
Let’s start at the center: we value our own opinions. Sometimes, we value it to the point of obsession. But in most times, we certainly believe that we have arrived at our own opinions justifiably and we lead our lives, make judgments, and like and dislike others based, directly or indirectly, on them. And because we value our opinions, of course, we like to share them with others. Some of us like to do this more than others, but at some level, we all do it.
Those who get to hear our opinions, and disagree, form an unfavorable opinion, in turn, about us. Those who think similarly, on the other hand, are drawn closer towards us. Similarities in perspectives imply commonalities in contexts. Perhaps we are brought up with the same values, perhaps we come from similar backgrounds, perhaps we went to similar schools, perhaps we are .. well .. just similar. There is comfort in familiarity, and there is confidence in support. From our tribal origins till now, it is the homogeneity of contexts and views that have brought us together and kept us bonded. In other words, a similarity of opinions signals a likelihood of multi-dimensional proximity. Everything from old boys networks to nepotistic political cliques, from trade unions to high-school coteries are formed in this way. And they share similar characteristics: group-think, exclusivity, a reluctance to consider contrarian viewpoints and a rejection of diversity.
We have some new names for this old phenomenon now: filter bubbles, (cognitive) echo chambers, ideological frames. We have been blaming algorithms for it, not ourselves (come to think of it, we have never liked blaming ourselves, have we?) and while certainly, the algorithms, and more fundamentally, the very design of current social networks (now, that’s a topic for another post altogether) have allowed this age-old problem to amplify, the truth is, perhaps, that it is more a problem of society as we know it than of digital social networks. Because we are merely looking at the agent (read: social networks) that amplified an existing issue and not really at the issue itself, possibly there is a lot of well-intentioned but superficial knee-jerking going around. In a way, ironically, more there is blame-fixing on algorithms and knee-jerk suggestions of a ‘bug-fix’, more we fall in line to this group-think and tend to look away from the root cause – the endemic social reality that everywhere and across time, similar opinions (and contexts) attract.
So, if this be the root problem, in the big picture, where lies the solution, the light at the end of the echoing tunnel, the pin that may burst the social bubble?
In my view (opinion?) the real issue with social bubbles is exposure; or, more precisely, a lack of it. In our troglodyte past, our exposure was limited to our immediate tribe. No wonder we lived and killed then for shared belief-systems that in modern scrutiny seem primitive and primal. Today, our horizons have expanded in ways that would be unimaginable then. But we should pause to consider, truly how much has our exposure diversified? We like to believe social networks have brought the world to our fingertips, but in reality, all it has done is it has brought our own first-degree connections across the world closer to us. And, it has brought the views of people (read: celebs) we admire (and follow) more pervasively to us than mass media earlier could. In other words, we are still, as a society (not merely in our social networks) only exposed to the viewpoints of those who we are closest to, socially, culturally and ideologically. (I am not considering here the massive elephant in the room that’s mass media, with its own ownership and bias issues, for now).
Therefore, it may be not unreasonable to conclude that if there be any way to break on through to the other side of this prison of our own connections and be connected and exposed to the views of the 99% of the world that we otherwise miss out on today, perhaps there lies our collective redemption, there lies our ability to truly harness the wisdom of strangers across the world, our path to break free of these filter bubbles and chambers where we only can hear the voices of those closest to us, echoing hollowly back our own opinions again and again.
In other words, what we need is not an amplified, more efficient version of our age-old social model, but a new disruption that by design allows us to hear voices beyond our own closest circles and be truly exposed to opinions of the world, be they congruent with our own, or not.