I want to have a million friends…

We all love social media. We are always connected. Our friends are online and we can have interaction every time we want. We don`t need to be in the same place to have a face to face conversation. Not even in the same country. And millions of people are online too, at this very moment.

Why don`t we take a tour and look for interesting people to meet and form a friendship? It is very easy, we only need to login into our favorite social media, look into the profiles of our friends, and then look into their friends and see if any of them can be our potential friend. And then we only have to click a button with a friendship request or to follow that person.

When the friendship request is accepted, the online process of bonding begins. We talk about ourselves and ask about them. We begin to know each other and to see if that person really fits all the requirements to be our friend. If they don`t, we don`t really care, because they are not “real friends” but somebody that met online. But if they are par to our expectations, we strongly bond and become friends, close friends. And everything without seen the real person.

We don`t look for random people, we look for people that have some characteristics. We look for people like us because we are the ruler we use to measure the others. So when we search our social networks looking for somebody new to be our friend, we are really looking for “somebody like us”. This is homophily, the trend to like and bond with people like us.

Social media help that process of bonding with people that are similar to us. And it helps us to keep apart everyone that is different.

So the illusion of meeting different and interesting people is overridden by the reality of only meeting the same kind of people we already know. It doesn`t widen our horizons nor gives us a different point of view.

And obviously, it makes our beliefs and attitudes more rigid, because we have consensus in our groups. We are constricted by stereotypes and prejudice. Social media helps to keep people distributed in groups of similar behavior and likes.

What really happens when making new friends in social media.

We can use two theories to explain what happens when we are looking for social media friends. The similarity-attraction hypothesis, studied by Byrne in 1971, predicts that people are more likely to interact with individuals or groups that have shared traits with them. The theory of self-categorization, studied by Turner in 1987, proposes that we tend to categorize ourselves and others in terms of race, gender, age, education, and we use these categories to differentiate between the ones like us and the rest, the different ones.

This is the normal behavior of human beings as individuals. But when all the individuals are forming groups social media starts to split in all the different associations. It is a group of smaller groups, every one very different from each other.

Social media tend to help with this particular issue through their algorithms. We don`t need to actively search for new friends because social media provide us with people to befriend. They use their internal search engines to see our behavior, our likes, and beliefs and predict what people in their database has the same characteristics starting with some friends of our friends and then people with larger social distance. We have the choice to befriend them or not, but the outcome is the same. Social media are divided into groups sharing some characteristics. Social media are polarized.

Polarization occurs when groups auto feedback with their own beliefs and don`t interact with groups thinking different from them. When finally they interact the outcome is generally explosive and tends to generate lots of reactions to the original reactions, like ripples on a water surface.

We can see the behavior of those groups just following some post on controversial issues, like gay adoption, immigration bans, capital penalty, and some less controversial too, music, food, fashion. Everything can be used to form a group that classifies the likes of people in social media, and that promotes the apparition of new small groups.

Polarization also contributes to radicalization. When a group is isolated and listening only to their own discourse, the radicalization is just the next step. When asked in an interview, Michael Stephanone, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo´s department of communication and expert in social psychology and strategic behavior, said about the recruitment of people through the internet: “The ultimate utility of social media is to connect like-minded individuals. We see this everywhere, and this shouldn’t be surprising because connecting with similar others has always been a human motivation. Today, however, technology enables us to connect globally. Now that we can connect globally, there is also greater opportunity to connect with others who are increasingly extreme in their attitudes and beliefs. The Internet and specifically social media make it so easy to connect with people that share similar ideologies.” (“An Expert Explains How Social Media Can Lead to the ‘Self-Radicalization’ of Terrorists,” n.d.)

I thought I was very open-minded…

We don`t want to act as the big bigot of the neighborhood. Because we are really open-minded. We are kind people. We do what kind people do. Then why do we act differently in social media? There are lots of theories explaining those behaviors. But they are not the point now. The point is how to counteract the homophily and polarization in our social media activity.

We have to keep in mind that social media can´t make us do what we don´t want. So if we want to keep ourselves from the isolation that homophily and polarization bring, we have to change our behavior in social media.

We have the power of clicking. We can choose to agree or disagree with an option. So the first step to avoid polarization is using this right to choose. We can search new acquaintances and friends with nonshared characteristics, so we can hear a different discourse than ours. It will widen our horizons, indeed.

Let´s take a look at the activities that can stop the polarization in our online lives. They are simple rules to follow, minor changes, nothing life threatening.

We can look for common ground. Regardless how different we can be, we sure have things in common. It doesn’t need to be a very big and important topic, just a little one that helps us see the others as a group that has a different opinion but is formed with people, just like our group.

Avoiding generalizations can offer us the opportunity of meeting new exciting people with interesting new ways of thinking. If we consider people as individuals, we can certainly avoid prejudice and stereotypes.

In sum

The functioning of social media is not the same as we thought. Initially, naivety led us to think that social media will enhance our lives, teach about different cultures and open the doors to life changing experiences. But the reality is dull and quite sordid.

Social media only give us what we already have, what we already know and think. Our friends and contacts reinforce the stereotypes and prejudices we already have. It generates isolation and polarization. And in some extreme cases, it can generate self-radicalization.

We need to replace stereotypes and prejudice with empathy. Putting ourselves in the place of the other, trying to understand why they think different. If we can avoid seeing people through our learned biases, maybe we can see them for what they really are, just people with different opinions.

References

Aiello, L. M. (2011). Friendship prediction and homphily in social media. PrePrint.

An Expert Explains How Social Media Can Lead to the “Self-Radicalization” of Terrorists. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/qbxnz5/we-asked-an-expert-how-social-media-can-help-radicalize-terrorists

Bisgin, H., Agarwal, N., & Xu, X. (2012). A study of homophily on social media. World Wide Web, 15(2), 213–232. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11280-011-0143-3

Bromwich, J. E. (2017, April 13). Social Media Is Not Contributing Significantly to Political Polarization, Paper Says. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/us/political-polarization-internet.html

Snapshot. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/qbxnz5/we-asked-an-expert-how-social-media-can-help-radicalize-terrorists

Ting, I.-H., Hong, T.-P., & Wang, L. S.-L. (Eds.). (2012). Social Network Mining, Analysis, and Research Trends: Techniques and Applications. IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-61350-513-7

Yuan, Y. C., & Gay, G. (2006). Homophily of Network Ties and Bonding and Bridging Social Capital in Computer-Mediated Distributed Teams. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), 1062–1084. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00308

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