The year is 2016. The place, Facebook. A 30-something man is scrolling through his newsfeed when he sees the inflammatory headline of a news article bashing the presidential candidate he supports. Angrily, the man glances up to see who posted the article, hesitates momentarily, and then “unfriends” the “friend” he has not seen since high school.
Is the man right to remove the offending presence? After all, the article was clearly biased, and discussing politics over social media never changes anyone’s mind, right?
.. The idea of social media echo chambers has garnered much attention lately. The concept of “confirmation bias” — the instinct to seek information that supports a current belief or conviction — has long been established in the world of science, and is something to be avoided whenever searching for truth. But in social media, this bias is propagated simply by reading, liking, and sharing content that acts to support those convictions we already hold, while avoiding content that challenges our beliefs. Essentially, we begin to isolate ourselves from those opposing opinions until we’re surrounded with people who agree with us.
.. “That’s a problem for Christians,” Goforth continues, “It’s like I want the simplistic kind of thing. Keep me out of the grays. But my view is, the grays are where the interesting things are, and it’s also where God can do things. When you are uncertain and when things are confusing you turn to God. So it’s an opportunity for Him to work in our lives.”
But it doesn’t stop there. In today’s age of data tracking, each like or click provides search engines and social media sites with information about the kinds of things we like and then works to provide us with more of the same, further insulating us from news or opinions we don’t want to see.
The theory is we become stuck in a feedback loop, liberated from the uncomfortable experience of confronting ideas or beliefs that oppose or challenge our own. And the theory is true, if only to an extent.
.. The researchers concluded that, “Unlike news, where there is solid evidence that people seek out ideologically consistent viewpoints, social media functions differently, perhaps driven by different motivations for use,” they wrote. “[Social media users] may come to learn that their friends don’t agree with them politically but recognize that disagreement isn’t a deal breaker, hence fostering some attenuation of dislike for people we disagree with.”
This recognition — that political views don’t have to make or break a relationship — is a great example of embracing “the grays,” that Goforth referred to. It requires inhabiting a space of tension, holding firmly to that view we profess, while also valuing the human being across from us enough to be drawn into a conversation, rather than walling ourselves off from the “opposition.”
If that mutual respect is demonstrated, social media can be used as a tool to foster community. Of course, if the subject of our ire continuously perpetuates a disregard for the value of others, perhaps engaging that individual over social media will prove fruitless, in which case the unfollow or unfriend options become reasonable.
However, in most instances, what we get out of social media is what we put in. Therefore, if used intentionally, it can prove to create opportunities to genuinely engage with others. Sending a heartfelt message, rather than a quippy reply to a challenging post, demonstrates a willingness to connect beyond a public fray. Yes, this requires more effort, but the payoff is real relationships in which God can move.
By turning away from what’s easiest and stepping into the gray areas, the unknown, where no one person has everything right, we allow God to work in our lives and mold us into the people He created us to be — people who are humble and open, and who acknowledge the inherent value of others.
Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?
.. It was only by burrowing through books that I hated, books that provoked feelings of outrage and indignation, that I truly learned how to read.
Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.
As debaters know, sometimes you figure out your position only in opposition. All it takes is for me to read a book by Howard Zinn or Paul Johnson, each gleefully hate-worthy in its own polarizing way, to locate my own interpretation of history. This is what’s so invigorating about hate-reading. To actively grapple with your assumptions and defend your conclusions gives you a sense of purpose. You come to know where you stand, even if that means standing apart.
You reinforce the walls of your personal information bubble. At least, that’s what SUNY Buffalo communication professor Ivan Dyelko and his research team found. In “The dark side of technology: An experimental investigation of the influence of customizability technology on online political selective exposure,” Dyelko and his coauthors report that people are much more likely to click and spend time on articles that reflect their pre-existing biases. In the tests they did, the only group that was likely to spend significant time reading articles that challenged their beliefs was the one in which the news feed was randomized, not weighted by user preference or an algorithm based on prior user behavior. Ask yourself: Do any of your social media services or search engines work on randomization? Or do they all show you what they think you want to see?
So what? Unlike a certain search engine that weights results instead of providing organic returns to user inquiry, social media companies are now shrugging sheepishly and saying, “Yeah, we totally contributed to the siloing of social discourse. Um. Sorry?” (It helps that there’s a study that points out their role in the media failures of 2016.)
.. Who cares? Social media investors should. Facebook is considered a great long-term stock buy right now because it’s virtually monopolizing a market—MySpace is an also-ran, Google+ is a niche product, and LinkedIn was bought so it could become a data collection mechanism for Microsoft’s suite of machine learning-enhanced workplace tools. But Facebook’s monopoly depends on it maintaining its user base of 1.9 billion active users, all of whom generate monetizable content for Facebook. If those users perceive a reason to flee Facebook—if they feel it’s biased, untrustworthy, routinely violating their safety or creating social friction—then the data sets Facebook sells to advertisers and publishers become less valuable, meaning the company eventually loses value.
We’ve already seen this happen with Twitter. Google, Disney and Salesforce all backed away from buying the microblogging company in 2016 for two reasons: Twitter hasn’t been able to successfully monetize its users (unlike Facebook), and Twitter has a growing reputation among current and former users as being unconcerned with the quality of user experience. That experience doesn’t just include the bullying endemic to Twitter; it also includes the content of the tweets themselves. On Twitter, nobody knows if you’re a robot someone paid to promote a specific ideology.
.. And you, dear reader, should care about your filter bubble potential, too. As a recent New York Times op-ed on the virtues of hate-reading reasoned, “Reading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a story line or an argument… Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.”
If you are the type of person who has actually woken up out of a fitful sleep saying, “And you’re wrong!”—and I’m going to guess, based on the self-selecting nature of people who read So What, Who Cares, every one of you has lost sleep at least once because someone was wrong on the Internet—then you are going to want to be right when you argue on the Internet or in your daily life. Being right requires identifying our own bubble, admitting why you’ve chosen to live in it, and then looking for the points of view that poke at it to see what breaks and what holds true.
Fish can’t explain to you what water’s like because he’s never been out of water. And I don’t think you can really understand where you’re from until you go somewhere else and see a different form of social organization.
.. I think it was Twain, I can’t remember for certain, but I think it was Twain who said, “The man who chooses not to read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” And right now, we live in a society of people who are decreasingly, appetitively literate. The average American reads 19 minutes a day, and it’s age correlated. Older folks are reading quite a bit more than 19 minutes and younger folks much less than 19 minutes. I think Gutenberg is the true father of America. I think the sine qua non of America is mass literacy, which led to competitive ideas, healthy challenges to authority, a plural marketplace after the printing press, that then creates a First Amendment culture of free speech, press, assembly, etc.
.. Ken Burns has the great phrase that right now we have a whole lot of pluribus and very, very little unum.
SASSE: And if you think of what Ken Burns’s work is about: Jazz, and baseball, and Civil War, and Lewis and Clark, and the Dust Bowl, and his new project about to come out on Vietnam — one of the things that he’s trying to do is give us a common canon.
.. There are basically three purposes to sex. Sex is a covenant, initiation, and renewal ceremony. Sex gives you a different kind of knowledge of someone. You form a kind of bond with someone that’s different than just a random person on the street. Sex matters. Sex is for procreation and sex is for pleasure.
There really isn’t much more to it than that. And yet those three things should be differentiated because it’s not just another contact sport. I don’t think it’s helpful to have teenagers not know that sex matters, and yet you can understand it. When you’re old and you look back on your sexuality, I bet most people are going to think it was basically reducible to those three kinds of categories. So I felt like I had to talk about it a little bit, but I wanted to duck the culture wars as much as possible.
.. I think that you can’t possibly become a really good parent without developing empathy. I don’t know that you have to have clear, cognitive categories to do it. There are lots and lots of people who are good parents who are empathetic who maybe couldn’t reflect on it. But since you’re asking the question for people who are advice-seeking, I think you need to self-consciously think about the cultivation of empathy.
And the travel point that you asked is another way of thinking about why it’s important to become well read. Because when you go into books, and you go to different kinds of stories, and obviously, you’ve just written a really important nonfiction book, and this this a nonfiction book, but one of the reasons why it’s critically important for our teens to read fiction is, they need to be transported to other times and places. They need to actually be able to see through the lenses of other protagonists.
.. One of the fundamental challenges of the moment we’re at is that we believe that the digital moment will necessarily expose us to more and more diverse things, and I think what’s actually going to happen is that we’re going to become more and more siloed. And there’s a real danger of tribalism and being able to at the moment that media is going to disintermediate. We’re not going to have big common channels anymore. We’re going to have more and more niche channels. It will be possible to surround yourself only with people who already believe what you believe.
In that world where you can create echo chambers and when advertisers and marketers and Russians are going to try to surround you with echo chambers to only believe what you already believe, it’s not going to be easy to develop empathy. It’s going to be really easy to demonize the other and come to believe that the deep problems of my soul and the deep problems of my mortality could maybe just be solved if I could vanquish those other really bad people from the field.