There is a common argument in favour of technology: If we are divided, surely technology can help solve the problem? Surely technology can bridge the gaps between different groups in society and connect us? Connection need not be face-to-face if artificial connection is sufficient. In such a system, social interaction can be facilitated if not replaced altogether by technological means.
The most obvious example is that of the Internet. As the epithet goes, it is the ‘World Wide’ Web, reaching incredibly diverse people and bringing them together at a common meeting place; in the surf, so to speak. The grand narrative of the Internet goes that it is a place of constant, intensive and diverse social interactions with a variety of people from a diverse variety of geographic backgrounds. Rather than being attracted to those similar to us (as we are in the physical world) on the Internet we are assumed to be magically open to everyone, inclusive and inherently extroverted, meeting and interacting with a large diversity of strangers on a daily basis. This narrative has been propounded in one way or another, at one time or another, by the creators of the Internet: Tim Berner’s Lee, Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf, and Leonard Kleinrock:
You can look at [the Internet] as a technical system. But… looking at it as humanity connected by technology is perhaps a more reasonable and useful way to look at it. ~ Tim Berner’s Lee[i]
[The Internet] is part of the social fabric of the world. ~ Bob Kahn[ii]
The Internet is for everyone. [It] offers a global megaphone for voices that might otherwise be heard only feebly. It invites and facilitates multiple points of view and dialogue. ~ Vint Cerf[iii]
The Internet creates communities. It is a place where communities form. ~ Leonard Kleinrock
The problem with this grand narrative is that it propounds the idea that the Internet is a place of social connection. This is largely true. However, if we focus narrowly on the use of the Internet as a tool for creating diversity, as a place to meet diverse strangers, then this concept begins to break down. While the Internet has the capacity to achieve diversity, often it re-entrenches existing social divisions.
Evidence suggests that people use the Internet with a purpose, often to fulfil a personal desire. Some of the most common usages include: the use of emails, search engines, social media, research, online purchases, movies or entertainment (and games) or reading the news, reviews, articles or other sources of information. Most of these do not provide opportunities to meet diverse strangers. Emails, news, videos and research for instance are solitary activities, and while we might encounter strangers along the way, (for example, in comment sections or posts), it is questionable whether these people are fundamentally different to ourselves.
The truth is that online, as much as in the real world, we still perpetuate our instinct to seek out ‘one of our own’ rather than someone radically different to us. In fact, the online space is the perfect place for people to gather as a unified and collective ‘tribe’. Most online communities form based on similarity and mutuality of their user base. Consider: sporting sites, religious sites, motoring sites, music sites, corporate networking sites, ‘meetup’ sites, dating sites, gaming sites, professional sites, funny video/comedy sites, political party sites and so on. Even social media -the hallmark of ‘meeting strangers online’- has its own groupings of ‘similar’ strangers based on the ‘likes’, ‘birthplaces’, ‘schools’ and ‘institutions’ each belong to. Through friending and following, these sites allow us to build up a web of people who, if not exactly like us, generally share a few core similarities, interests and often real world proximity. Social media ‘friends’ are often first met in real life. The meeting of actual strangers on social media sites (excluding friends of friends) is minimal.
Along with seeking and befriending similar people, there is also a tendency for us to seek online news that affirms our beliefs, rather than challenges our beliefs.[iv] News we agree with is more “accessible”, and we tend to spend more time reading it. This results in interactions online – on news sites – with commentators we already agree with, rather than discussions with people who have fundamentally different views. While this is still a “connection” to another human being, it is essentially a self-affirming connection, one that may result in an affirmation of narrow minded thinking.
The people who most often cite the Internet as a place of real ‘social connection’ are often themselves in the business of providing such services: social media sites, online forums, dating sites and other ‘meetup’ groups… The problem is not that these companies are lying, in as much as that the Internet is only occasionally used for these types of relationships. Generally, such relationships would be fostered faster in the real world rather than online. Furthermore, accidental communication, or ‘bumping into’ someone is much less likely online than in real life. It is much easier online to ignore, hide or ‘block’ people we dislike and don’t want to talk to. This makes it easier to ignore people who are different to us. The online space in that sense is self-tailored. We choose who can “see” us, who can “friend” us, who can “chat” to us and so on. We can tailor away those who are disagreeable, or boring – and connect with those who are fundamentally similar.
Studies of social media show that “similarity” is still a key indicator of friendship online.[v] Online, teenagers tend to befriend those who live or work close to them, and are of a similar age, demographic and so on, even though such ‘barriers’ aren’t meant to exist. However, the strongest indicator of online friendship is “interests”.[vi] The reason for this is quite simple: people present “interests” predominantly in their online social media profiles.
“Personal home page authors try to present an online portrait of themselves, working with a palette of design elements like guestbooks, banners [i.e. backgrounds], favorite links, and other Web addons.”[vii]
It is this online representation of a user’s identity that allows other users to connect with them. So when they present their interest in a sport, another user may connect with them based on a similar interest. A recent MySpace study found that “those who applied a very specific background, such as military, were often soldiers in the military and listed friends who were also enlisted”.[viii] The same was found of athletes, who if presented as such, showed a predominance of friends in the same field. Beyond occupations, users may list movies, books, groups, activities and other ‘interests’ to establish their online identity. Profile pictures, as the final layer of this self-identification often establish the age-range of the user, even if the user has not explicitly stated their age. This allows strangers the chance to “browse” the person’s identity before deciding to befriend them. In this “browsing” process similar interests can rise to the fore of criteria for friendship selection, along with ‘mutual friends’.
A focus on “interests” as opposed to other factors such as physical location (which the internet diminishes the importance of), does allow for a semblance of diversity within the confines of that single category. So people from different states or countries might come together in the same band appreciation group, or people of different ages might express the same interest in a range of activities, and meet and talk about such activities online. The foundation of this is the site’s own Graphical User Interface and what exactly a user displays about themselves. If age, race, income bracket, demographic and so on are all voluntarily and prominently displayed by the user, then this could decrease the likelihood of others –who are not part of these groups- befriending the user. This would particularly be true if strangers dislike one of the groups the user belongs to – for instance if the stranger is a racist, and the user is of a minority race.
To mitigate this pre-judgment process, users should be encouraged to upload as little information about themselves as possible to online sites. If they limit their information to ‘interests’ alone, then they will purely be judged on those interests as opposed to identity features. This could facilitate ‘friendships’ across traditional societal dividers, and diminish the importance of categorical distinction.
Even at this minimal level, people will still unite behind categories of ‘similar’ interest. Hence, to get rid of this final layer of similarity, online users could simply conduct communication anonymously. Anonymity prevents pre-judgment and facilitates discussion between people who may be very different from each other. Here I note the proliferation of anonymous comment threads on YouTube, Reddit and other forums where users subsume their identity to an ‘avatar’ and/or pseudonym. It is in these environments that communications between diverse strangers flourish – particularly for those too shy, intimidated or scared to talk publicly under the ‘banner mast’ of their own identity. Anonymous spaces that are devoid of banning, blocking, defriending and so on but are merely spaces of discussion, are possibly the best place for people from a vast array of backgrounds to interact. It is here, on online forums, that words become the last and only criteria by which someone is judged.
I hesitate to suggest that these anonymous forums are an actual “solution” to the problem. Indeed, without knowing who someone is, it is quite hard to empathise with the ‘experience’ of living their life, if not impossible. In fact, anonymous comments can be vitriolic and hateful online, most likely because an anonymous user has no idea who they are talking to. Hiding all difference and pretending we have no identities at all also seems to move against a process of ‘celebrating diversity’.
Websites may however allow for a more global unifying movement and the creation of a community that need not abide by geographic location or physical proximity. This is the great advantage of the web. By contrast, local communities that have the advantage of using physical proximity should continue to do so – because this will help promote diversity at the local level.
This is an extract from my book: “Us vs Them: A Case For Social Empathy”.
 Yun Huang, Cuihua Shen, Noshir S. Contractor, ‘Distance Matters: Exploring proximity and homophily in virtual world networks’, Decision Support Systems (2013), 55, 4, 969-977.
Chapter 5: Connection in the Digital Age – Why Not Use The Internet?
[i] Sir Tim Berners-Lee, On The Internet, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLtHA3enW4g>, viewed Wed 2nd October 2013.
[ii] Bob Kahn, On the Present and Future of the Internet, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_BHAaLsiz8>, viewed Wed 2nd October 2013.
[iii] Vint Cerf, The Internet Is For Everyone, The Internet Society (2002)
[iv] Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, Jingbo Meng, “Reinforcement of the Political Self Through Selective Exposure to Political Messages”, Journal of Communication, 61, 2, (April 2011).
[v] Elizabeth Mahur, Lacey Richards, ‘Adolescents and emerging adults social networking online: Homophily or diversity’, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (2011), 32, 4;
Jennifer Ann Turchi, ‘Homophily and Online Networks: Young Adult Relationships in MySpace’, (2007), Thesis, Graduate School of Clemson University.
[vi] Lucy Maria Aiello et. al, ‘Friendship Prediction and Homophily in Social Media’, ACM Transactions on the Web (TWEB) (2012) 6, 2.
[vii] Z. Papacharissi, ‘The self online: The utility of personal homepages’, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (2002a), 46(3), 346-368;
- Papacharissi, ‘The presentation of the self in virtual life: Characteristics of personal home pages’, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, (2002b), 79.