The Untapped Intersectionality of Social Media

Walk a mile in someone else’s Instagram

A long time ago, social media made a tragic error. Personally, I blame Facebook. It was their decision to really focus on modeling people’s offline relationships that steered everyone else in this direction. I’m sure they had their reasons.

You may not remember this, but let Old Uncle Dan tell ya… online communities used to be about the people you knew online, not your old classmates and your coworkers and your relatives. It used to be about communities of interest.

This article, however, is not about the virtues of communities based on mutual interest. It’s about the one useful thing that social networks based on our offline relationships could be doing, but are not. It’s about the untapped intersectionality of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, platforms that should be expanding our social networks, not just reproducing them.

We Contain Multitudes

Facebook knows a lot about you. It knows your age, race, gender, politics, socioeconomic status, geographical location, and sexual orientation, not to mention your profession, interests, and general mood at any given moment. (That last one may be an exaggeration, but who are we kidding?)

A lot has been written in the last year or several about how all these parts of our identity put boundaries around our access to information. They lock us into like-minded echo chambers, or so the thinking goes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

When social media platforms hash up your identity, it’s because they want to sell you to advertisers. That means putting you into the most specific, highly targeted, tight little box they can devise. Legroom be damned! Their interest is in excluding all the parts of the human experience with which you do not already identify. That’s bad news for empathy and it’s a waste of social media’s potential.

We could be building empathy machines!

Intersectionality → Empathy

One of the best ways to build empathy, I think, is to show people the ways in which they are like others. That builds a bridge of shared identity to the things that make us different. It expands our in-groups and weakens our stereotypes.

Platforms like Instagram are already good at showing us how the world looks through our friends’ eyes, but they could be showing us how the world looks through the eyes of people we’d never otherwise meet. They could be expanding our social networks to include people that are like us in every way but one or two.

They could be building bridges, instead of echo chambers.

Imagine being able to create an Instagram feed that was populated by the public posts of people who…

  • Share your income bracket, but are of a different race
  • Share your age and gender, but have a different sexual orientation
  • Share your religious affiliation, but are from a different generation
  • Share your political views, but belong to a different income bracket

It would be like peering into parallel realities! Like having a window into a world where you make a little more money, or a little less. Worlds where you were born in a different time or into a different race. Worlds where you made different decisions with your life.

Social media platforms could do this tomorrow. They could do it with the same technology they use to target ads. The question is: Do they want to be in the empathy-building business? Or do they just want to sell ads?

But How Does This Sell Ads?

Oh my gawd, it doesn’t! It might increase engagement, tho, and that sells ads. Also, if you could look away from your metrics for a minute, increasing empathy will go a long way towards combating online harassment.

Nothing kills antisocial behavior like out-group accountability. Even just knowing that out-group members are going to be aware of one’s behavior drastically reduces all sorts of bullshit. That’s the technical term. For details, see my previous articles on Empathy & Antisocial Media and Social Behavior Design.

In-Group Bias - Accountability = Antisocial Behavior

Having an intersectional window into your out-groups not only creates empathy and expands your in-group, it also gives out-group members a window on YOUR behavior. The more users are aware of that visibility, the more accountable they’ll feel. In the long run, I’m sure preemptive methods such as this will prove a more cost-effective means of fighting online harassment that building bigger and better tools for community policing.

At the very least, doing something visible to build bridges across racial, class, and gender divides would be good PR. (That‘s “public relations,” for those not in the know.) I can name several social networks that could really use the brownie points, right about now.

And, ya know, you get to fight bigotry and shit. That’s pretty cool. I’d sure as hell do it, if I ran a social media platform.


Daniel Bayn is a User Experience Designer with an interest in the psychology of online social behavior. He lives in Oakland and works in San Francisco. Contact him about designing better social media experiences. We need them.