How Not to Live in a Bubble Online
Take a look at your online media consumption — do you only follow white, cisgender Americans? If so, you’re not hearing a lot of perspectives that you might really want.
As a WOC writer, I often find myself searching for structural reasons that explain why certain communities are so homogenous. Why aren’t there more people of color involved in crafting communities, or goth culture, for example? Usually the answer is some combination of erasure and exclusion.
These same forces shape the communities we form on social media. Whether your goal is to help counteract structural inequality by connecting with people from different backgrounds and cultures, or simply to be better informed about current events, representation can help us live better. In other words, making a point to get to know different people counteracts the systems that keep us apart.
Social media algorithms, influencer culture, bias, and bots all work together to accomplish everything from polarizing politics to proliferating misinformation about the coronavirus. And our individual feeds tend to mirror what we could improve about our social and personal lives. Landmark research by Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing, published in The Big Sort, found that since the 1970s Americans have increasingly segregated by religion, politics, and socioeconomic status — something that deepens and perpetuates systemic inequalities. Today, our social media communities reflect these same sorts of divisions.
“People are typically likely to only be connected to people who look and think like them off-line,” says Alok Vaid-Menon, an author/performer/influencer who identifies as Indian American, gender-nonconforming, and transfeminine. “This reproduces a myopic view of the world and makes one think that their individual perception is the same thing as objective reality.” This explains why, for example, many liberals were blindsided by the 2016 election of Donald Trump, a candidate that the New York Times, social media echo chambers, and other sources insisted didn’t need to be taken seriously.
Still, if deployed correctly, social media can act as a force for good, says Joanne Tombrakos, a professor in social media and digital storytelling at New York University. Evidence suggests that since people on social media frequently “present their true selves to others,” our online interactions can help us to build empathy and understanding, and transcend the limits of our own personal experiences. But that’s only if we use social media mindfully, and with intention, notes Tombrakos — and most of us aren’t.
Tombrakos points out that much of what we see in our feeds is determined by algorithms. Each platform uses different criteria to predict what you want to see, but they all, at least theoretically, prioritize posts from the people you’ve elected to connect with.
To make your feed more inclusive, start with a more diverse group of online friends and then use them to expand your social media horizons. “Following people who live enormously different lives than us… reminds us of the infinite complexity of the world and human experience,” says Vaid-Menon. “It’s kind of a chain reaction. You follow someone different and then see the people that they are amplifying and in conversation with and then follow some of those folks.”
Changing the flavor of your feed takes time and effort because of the bias baked into supposedly neutral algorithms, says Vaid-Menon. Social media “shadow bans” that hide selected content can also disrupt the attention certain users might otherwise receive.
Vaid-Menon theorizes that social media “algorithms disproportionately negatively affect queer and trans content creators of color, especially.” Data compiled by Salty, an intersectional reader-supported publication, suggests that this is not anecdotal. Online behavior that falls within the “gray areas” of Instagram’s community guidelines is censored more often when people with certain gender expressions or bodies perform it, The Guardian reported last year.
The second step: Minimize your engagement with posts from friends with dominant identities (sorry, pals!) and engage with the kind of posts you want to see more of in your feed. For example, I want to know more about what it’s like for trans folks like Vaid-Menon or the alpaca farmers of Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, people from communities that I can’t physically connect with in real life. So I like the hell out of their posts and comment on them, something I don’t do a lot on Instagram. On Twitter, I’ve also used rotation curations to tailor my feed. For example, after a #rocur with the People of Craft, I discovered a whole world of indigenous artisans from communities across North America and New Zealand.
As Vaid-Menon puts it, when your feed “challenges dominant imagination [and] expands the horizons of what is beautiful, what is worthy, what is possible,” you’ll know you’re moving in the right direction.