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The Inherently Political Design of Social Media

In this week’s readings, we learned how different social structures can be seen within the design of technological objects themselves. Operating systems can reflect racial divides through their emphasis on modular thinking. Modern forms of transportation are centered on a central figure of authority, thus reflecting traditional capitalist social structures. If we look deeply into any technology, we can understand that it its shaped by the social structures around it and in turn, affects its environment as well. A system created around a principle (such as capitalism) propagates that idea in society as it is used more and more. It’s a cycle; culture creates technology, technology creates new cultures. Because of this, the design of technology is inherently political; the creators of modern technology have an enormous responsibility to understand this fact.

In 2018, there is nowhere we can see this more than in social media. When social media became an embodied part of everyday life, scientists learned how not just the content, but the design of social media networks had changed culture.

A key aspect of the design of social media is an interface. Social media websites/apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram create a shared interface where users can share their thoughts and stories. This shared space is designed so that instead of speaking to someone one on one, users have the opportunity to efficiently gain information about a lot of people at once through their “posts” on the website. In some ways, social media sites are designed to bring people who are not physically together closer. However, this design has another cultural impact that many don’t see. According the Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect”, the act of obtaining information without actually seeing the people behind the screen prevents social media users from fully understanding each other. She worries that as young kids communicate more and more through social media, they will miss out on developing social skills for distinguishing non-verbal cues: “[social media] puts everybody in a nonverbal disabled context, where body language, facial expression, and even the smallest kinds of vocal reactions are rendered invisible.” This fear has nothing to do with the content of social media; it has to do with its design. The same design elements that propel social media forward also have the opportunity to hold meaningful communication back.

Another element of social media design is directly tied to the way it is monetized: online advertisements. Social media websites are designed to show the user what they can buy depending on their interests and history. Companies pay to have advertisements distributed specifically to those that are the most likely to buy their products. The way these advertisements are designed, companies must have “clickable” and “shareable” aspects to every product in order to circulate their products throughout the social network. If they take this away, they risk losing valuable customers. This design aspect of social media shapes the entire system for advertising in the modern era. Advertisers must change not only the platforms on which they advertise, but the content of their advertisements as well. It’s a perfect example of technological design shaping culture.

The aspect of social media design that is under the most fire is its tendency towards confirmation bias, especially in political conversations. Most social media sites are designed to connect the user with other users with similar viewpoints; this increases traffic on their sites because many users enjoy speaking to like minded people. However, the selective information presented to users on social media impacts the conversation negatively. Social media users have the tendency to live in an echo chamber, and therefore often fail to look at different points of view. Social media is run on algorithms that are meant to increase the amount of traffic on their site; however, according to a recent study published in the Proceeding National Academy of Scientists, researchers found that the more traffic a community was, the more self-segregated and polarized. Social media sites like Twitter are designed to push towards these groups. The design is a political act, the equivalent of pushing people away from compromise. It stems from politics and shapes politics simultaneously.

When we look at modern day social media, we can see how its design affects society as a whole. These design aspects make social media an inherently political technological object which must be studied. If these design elements are not studied, the effects could be disastrous.





The goal of this undergraduate anthropology course at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is to enable students to understand and appreciate science and technology from an anthropological perspective — in ethnographic ideas, methods, and writing.

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Shreya Rao

Shreya Rao

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