Does Social Media Celebrate the “Narcissism of Similarity?”

Last June, Buzzfeed ran a piece entitled, ” People You Need to Unfriend on Facebook Immediately.”  In the post, the author suggests 1) signing into Facebook, 2) clicking links below various pop culture/political images, 3) seeing which of your friends has “liked” each of the pages, and 4) defriending these people.  Pages included in this exercise?  Nickleback, Guy Fieri, Two and a Half Men, Rush Limbaugh, Kim Kardashian, the Adam Sandler movie “Jack and Jill,” Dane Cook, and so on.

Adam Sandler, riding a jet ski all the way to a 3% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Source: http://s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/enhanced/web05/2012/6/19/11/enhanced-buzz-20605-1340119128-0.jpg

While Buzzfeed’s post can be tossed aside as a throwaway attempt at garnering laughs and page views, is it indicative of a shared attitude on the Internet?  Do we all self-select our peer group online to the point that we are eventually surrounded by like-minded others that share not only our political views, but also our favorite TV shows, taste in music, and seemingly random (read: bacon, kittens, 90s pop culture) favorite things in general?  And what if you disagree with one of the things that your friends all seem to love – do you feel the need to keep that to yourself?

In his landmark 1985 work, “Habits of the Heart,” sociologist Robert Bellah explores some societal issues that might provide some insight into how we interact online today.  Of particular interest for the topic at hand is the notion of “lifestyle enclaves” that is introduced within the work.  

“Lifestyle enclaves” refer to areas that people live in by choice and are centered around similarity.  In practice, this areas can be anything from a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood to a retirement community.  Lifestyle enclaves fit the needs of those who seek them out, as they position a person amongst others of similar characteristics, be it by measure of income, cultural interest, or another condition.  So what exactly distinguishes a lifestyle enclave from our typical notions of a community? In Bellah’s words,

Whereas a community attempts to be an inclusive whole, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life and the different callings of all, lifestyle is fundamentally segmental and celebrates the narcissism of similarity (emphasis mine). It usually explicitly involves a contrast with others who do not share one lifestyle. For this reason we speak not of lifestyle communities, though they are often called such in contemporary usage, but of lifestyle enclaves…The different, those with other lifestyles are not necessarily despised, they may be willingly tolerated, but they are irrelevant or even invisible in terms of one’s own lifestyle enclave.

Reading this passage, one can begin to wonder: How easy is it for us to think we are within a “genuine community” when we are really within a “lifestyle enclave?”  And how easy is it for us to take a step back and see which of these we are building when we are helping to develop a group?  These days, these questions must not only be addressed offline, but they must also be approached within the context of our social experiences online.

Calvin & Hobbes: If you want to be in my lifestyle enclave, you must appreciate it. Source: http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1992/08/29

In the digital sphere, as I’ve addressed earlier, we often serve as our own editors for the content that we receive.  The status updates that you see, the photos that are shared, the articles that are posted in your feed – it’s all because you decided to “friend” or “follow” an account (except, of course, for advertisements, but that’s another story).  So, when we log into our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. accounts, are we unwittingly part of a digital lifestyle enclave?

Lifestyle enclaves are by their very nature exclusive.  Due to the fact that they are centered around a particular interest (or set of interests), certain characteristics emerge: a language forms around the shared interest, certain abilities and pieces of knowledge are given value, and attempts by a member to show a difference in values or skills from the norms of the group are cause for conflict and exclusion.  Does this exist on the web?  If someone posts a view that you oppose online, do you tend to engage with that person, or do you exasperatedly ignore them?  If someone does not post any view, but does not go out of their way to support a view that you agree with, does that move them away from what you expect to see in your social media news feed? 

So, what is the impact of all of this if the general premise holds?  One might draw the conclusion that users draw themselves into somewhat of an echo chamber online that allows in one narrative and filters out disagreements.  Facebook, however, disagrees – a recent study of theirs contradicts some of this argument, although the debate is far from over.  It’s hard to read Bellah’s work in the modern context and not at least speculate that the social structures of the web perpetuate lifestyle enclaves just as it aids community-building.  As we learn to navigate the new digital tools in our lives, it is important for us to at least explore these questions to ensure that we aren’t moving forward blindly.  Gaining some broad understanding for how society reacts to and prepares for new avenues for communication will allow us at least properly contextualize the new opportunities and challenges on the horizon.

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Society’s New Movable Walls: Is Tech Enabling an Empathy-Free Populace?

Source: http://truthy.indiana.edu/site_media/pdfs/conover_icwsm2011_polarization.pdf
Source: http://truthy.indiana.edu/site_media/pdfs/conover_icwsm2011_polarization.pdf

How many socially and politically-focused posts in your Facebook and Twitter feeds do you disagree with?  I mean, REALLY disagree with, to the point that you are moved to action (be it offline activity or the need to voice your sentiments on the post)?

My hunch is that on social media (that is to say, the sites that are driven by content creators whom have been curated by you), you mostly find yourself aligned with others.  The image above illustrates data from a study conducted at Indiana University, and the graphic is a representation of political tweets as they tend to cluster (red for conservative and blue for liberal).  As you think about your own social media presence, you likely have some friends that you find politically misguided, and they likely stand out from the crowd, but consider your feeds as a whole.  From that perspective, how much diversity of viewpoint is there, really?  I think that this is a byproduct of the structure of social media sites, at least in part.

In general, social media sites are structures that encourage:

  • High levels of sharing – Very few barriers exist on the path from a passing thought to an online post.
  • Easy consumption of others’ content – The feed, which is made up of connections that the user has made, is presented in a way that makes for ease of consumption and becomes ‘smarter’ as time passes (Facebook’s algorithm for the News Feed, for instance, which lays out content based on past user clicks and views).
  • Grouping/prioritizing of connections’ content – Google+ circles, Facebook lists, and Twitter lists all feed into this.  Facebook’s algorithm for the News Feed also orders content based on perceived value/interest to the user.
  • Making connections based on shared interests – Accounts and pages across social media platforms allow users to find highly specialized gathering spots and follow content accordingly.  These pages and accounts rarely connect to other accounts and pages with opposing (or even slightly differing) viewpoints (for example: Would you expect a Tea Party Facebook Page to lead you to a Green Party Facebook Page, unless it was via a disparaging link?).

If you accept the premise above and agree that social networking sites are characterized by the traits above, we might next ask: What happens as a result of these institutional structures?  It is my belief that people gradually build themselves into silos of similar-minded individuals (and pages/brands) and proceed to exist inside of an echo chamber.  Individuals are able to use “movable walls,” in which they build barricades keeping some in and some out.  This freedom allows users to curate a set of editors that serve up information that the user wants to hear, rather than an unbiased feed of all news.  They share, receive, and interact with information that perpetuates and hardens previously-held beliefs, with moments of cognitive dissonance few and far between.  As a result, when people hear of the plights of others and other social problems, their only reply is a collective:

Wisdom courtesy Ron Swanson of Parks & Rec. Source: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lw1zohxIr31qbjsiq.gif

Why is this the case?  Consider the possibility that they can’t even imagine the situation of others from different backgrounds, with different values, or within various circumstances.  Quite possibly, most people surround themselves with like-minded individuals in the online realm, and this manifests itself in the content that they read daily on their social media feeds.

Somewhat ironically, it is this environment that allows for stories that do break through to readers to have that much greater of an emotional impact.  I was recently reading an interview with the singer Thao Nguyen in which she discusses some of the people she met through her work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), and the personal background stories are rather interesting.  Each piece focused on the respective situations of the female prisoners, and the result is we learn tales of humanity within a population that is often stigmatized and dehumanized.  I bring this example up because as I was reading the post, I was struck by the thought that prison inmates are quite possibly the quintessential group with whom it is difficult to empathize (if you have not actually been in similar situations).  As such, I doubt that your average citizen would be able to easily process the societal conditions that set some people on certain paths that put them at higher risk to ultimately end up behind bars.  While this disconnect between varying members of society is likely both offline and online, I do believe that the structures within social networking sites merely perpetuate this social problem.  The social ties that are formed offline are then carried over into the online realm, where they are eventually refined and narrowed for information consumption.

What does this mean for managers, businesses, and other organizations?  It could mean that the future workforce that enters adulthood within this environment will reach offices with lesser capacity for empathy and perhaps even greater narcissism.  Data is already beginning to show this trend, but it has yet to be proven that the current technological wave is the cause.  If our “movable walls” are at the root of this decreased empathy, however, let’s hope that the next wave of innovations helps to connect all people beyond existing social stratification.

I leave you with a Calvin & Hobbes strip of questionable relevancy to this particular post (but one that does fit within the confines of our larger course discussions):

Source: http://assets.amuniversal.com/f8aa65d8250d102d94d7001438c0f03b