How Online Communities Limit and Divide Us // How to Rebuild Trust & Unity

SNL, “Adele Thanksgiving”

A Nation and Dinner Table Divided

Joining family and friends over the winter holidays comes with mixed feelings and emotions- a love in my heart, along with some trepidation and fear that at some point the topic of national politics, the state of the world, racism or any number of hot button topics will come up and ignite an argument of apocalyptic magnitude. In anticipation, The Guardian is even arming its readers with killer comebacks for this year’s Christmas dinner arguments.

In light of what has transpired over the last year in this election, it has become clear that we live in a nation that is fractured. Time Magazine’s latest cover features Trump as “President of the Divided States of America.”

According to the Pew Research Center on U.S. Politics & Policy, the trend of animosity and partisanship has been significantly on the rise since 2014: more than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.

The Pew Center’s research revealed that Democrats strongly consider Republicans dishonest and ignorant, while Republicans consider Democrats as being immoral and lazy. The only sentiment mutually agreed upon across party lines is that one side deems the other incredibly closed-minded.

As someone who has had a dedicated career in building safe and trustworthy online spaces, my job was to develop policies and enforcement methods that would guide acceptable use of the internet. I have been at forefront of user content and monetization policy development and enforcement at such places as Google, YouTube, and Meetup. I closely evaluated behavioral trends to identify when to evolve those policies and how to evaluate and make determinations on the allowance of controversial content and what would guide allowable internet behavior. I have seen firsthand the underbelly of how humanity expresses itself and what causes divisiveness and erodes trust.

The topic of growing partisanship is important to me because it reflects how deeply human trust has eroded on a mass scale, and how we collectively undermine our value in relationships and diversity. Much of my work has been focused on building trust, and it pains me to witness society splinter it apart. More broadly destructive to the fiber of human connectivity and relationship-building than trolls, bots, or intentional malicious behavior are the more subtle and passive activities that almost all of us participate in: liking, sharing, or reposting content that is agreeable, joining and participating only in what is familiar, and dismissing, reporting, or blocking content we dislike or disagree with. All of these activities are justified and rationalized in the name of promoting, protecting, and improving our personal circles and communities. However, we are boxed into taking easy actions based on what buttons are readily available online (e.g. like/heart, flag/report), and self-confined to be informed by the interests of those who fit squarely within our pre-conceived constructs of community that are centered upon very basic and narrowly defined notions of commonality.

Much of the growing divisiveness and partisanship in our circles can be traced back to how online social networking and media design has changed to emphasize like-mindedness and like-identity.

How Online Community Feeds Divisiveness and Isolation

Developing community, especially online, has been reduced to “like attracting like.” Facebook actively suggests developing groups of people based on like interests, affiliations, and identities. Meetup is exclusively for communities that share a common interest or identity only in their locality. The current embodiment of “community” translates to focusing on only those whom identify with us, share and discuss the same ideas and ideals, thus contributing to exclusivity; naturally leading us to stick to our own.

Divisiveness comes from us walling ourselves in to be with those who match our likeness. Our practices in building online communities have become an extension of our unchecked intolerance and avoidance of perspectives that differ from our own resulting in the tunnel vision and echo chamber effect.

What Changed?

When Facebook launched “Unfollow” in November 2014, it may have unwittingly planted the seeds to a new social dynamic. The feature easily allows users to unfollow friends, or any person one has “liked” on Facebook, without notifying them or having to unfriend them. The “Manage News Feed” option helps with this task, offering ranked lists of people, pages, and groups users may want to unfollow. The quick adoption and popularity of this feature has spawned a similar approach across all online social networking platforms and established a trend towards more stealth and private social curation. Twitter launched quality filtering, Reddit recently enabled filtering for what users see in r/all, and dozens of new apps and services emerged to feed the growing interest to silence and filter without unfollowing or disclosing.

As building communities online became more about like attracting like, reducing friction and complaints of disagreeable content grew to be a more significant part of the design philosophy. A positive spin and re-framing of this design approach evolved into an emphasis on relevancy, personalization, customization, and higher quality. This approach of reducing argument and conflict was intended to enhance the experience of using social media, but left unchecked, on a larger scale had negative effects such as subverting shared understanding. Collectively these features helped keep engagement metrics and user time consumption at an all time high by allowing people to more easily avoid annoyance or disruptive content, yet it has left us anaemic in the diversity of content we consume.

“Unfollow” and similar tools became the enablers of easy avoidance and subtly practiced intolerance. Our personal use of these features limits our exposure and understanding of the broader world we share. It has become part of how we practice online community building.

“…[we] talk about the filter bubbled on social networks- those algorithms that keep us connected to the people we feel comfortable with and the world we want to see…It is time for our industry to pause and take a moment to think: as technology finds its way into our daily existence in new and previously unimagined ways, we need to learn about those who are threatened by it. Empathy is not a buzzword but something to be practiced.”
-Om Malik, New Yorker

How we personally choose to utilize these tools exposes our self-selective, dismissive natures, and our lack of empathy. We regularly are creating a dividing line between ourselves and those whom we don’t agree with or whom don’t agree with us. Nested in these behaviors, partisanship thrives.

Our commitment to ourselves, and to this world we share falls short because we can’t see beyond the barriers we have constructed in the communities we have isolated ourselves in. While we might want to blame the last election for positing us to see each other as untrustworthy opposition, it’s time that we not only recognize the growing divisiveness, but also acknowledge how our own individual actions play into and perpetuate it. It’s helpful to recognize that we all want to be good and do good in this world, but all have different narratives as to what that means.

How Can We Re-establish Trust and Unity?

Divided people are easier to rule. That was, after all, the whole point of apartheid. — Trevor Noah, NY Times

The potential for reuniting our country requires a commitment to extending trust across party lines and encompassing the broad diversity of our nation. If we want a world less divided, then we must be willing to embrace and embody a change to our everyday behaviors with regards to how to expand our definition of community, and the depths to which we are willing to understand one another.

Here are a few ways we can exercise empathy and turn against the tide of partisanship:

  • Extend & Reach. Adopt a broader definition of community that is more inclusive and diverse. Reach out to those outside of your immediate circles or those you’ve lost touch with.
  • Be Conscious. Take ownership over your online actions and consumption.
  • Evolve. Take actions beyond what social networking and media platforms are designed to encourage.
  • Listen. Talk to lots of different people in person. Be open to understanding them vs. convincing them of your opinion. They are likely trying to do good things for the future of this world too.

Thank you for reading. If the topic of improved community building interests you, I would like to hear from you and your experiences. I am always open to having a conversation too.

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