I was surprised, and not positively, when I realised that the level of awareness of the world our children have, is lower than the level we had at a similar age. This in spite of the many more sources of information available to them. To learn about the world, we had to watch the news, read the newspaper or read books. Nowadays, there are many more sources of information available to young people.
What I thought to be an advantage to them is anything but. In our day and age – I turned 50 a couple of months ago – content was curated for us. Those curated sources prided themselves on bringing us a balanced view on the world. The windows we look out through were not as biased. I’m not saying it wasn’t biased at all – the USSR was bad, America was good – but it did offer a broader spectrum of view and ideas which, as long as they did not drift too far away from what was the norm, were represented or at least mentioned.
The situation is different now. Children live in echo chambers. And how could they not. There is much information out there, in many different forms on the social media platforms they frequent. The “information” is present and pervasive in a way that they either check out or limit themselves to only being exposed to what their peer group is exposed to. Instead of a curated view by an organisation beholden to an as objective as possible representation of all points of view, they get exposed the view of only the people they follow. Those people in turn follow people they like. And where all together these youngsters following youngsters may be confronted with a significant number of perspectives, those perspectives are not all that different. They are mainly echoing each other. That’s the famous echo chamber.
And herein lies the rub. If a conflicting idea never finds its way into your mind and into your thinking, you will not grow because you cannot. There is no conflict in your head leading to a different point of view or even a catharsis. You will parrot. Because true growth comes from holding conflicting thoughts in your head for a while, knowing they cannot co-exist, and working your way through these to end up with one idea, ideally integrating elements of each of those ideas. You synthesise and integrate, and you own that new idea. And sometimes, just sometimes, a new idea coming out of left field may blow your mind wide open.
The question now becomes how we can get those ideas that are not in line with the thinking in the echo chamber our kids are captured in?
My idea here is that this is where social media platform responsibility comes in. And they have that responsibility because they have gone beyond being mere parking places for ideas and content of others. Instead they monetised, acting on what the placement of ideas, content and reactions on those platforms could bring them: revenue. They gather, they analyse, they target our kids and anyone hanging out in such an echo chamber with commercials, with profile “compatible” content. They do exploit, they act and they lead and in my book that means they have a responsibility.
If they can profile you on what you like and what you will most likely positively react to, they are capable of identifying what is contrary to your current beliefs and likes. Even better, they are perfectly capable of finding a profile within the opposite echo chamber you would connect with.
And that is the thing: young, fertile minds seek input. If that input is always the same, it creates conformity within ranks and leads to sameness. Certain young people need that sameness for their identity, but that sameness becomes shallowness real fast.
So here is a call to action to all social media platforms: instead of connecting your users to their peer group, you as a social media platform need to give these users at least the possibility to interact with someone whose opinion is on the opposite side of theirs. In the worst of cases, it does not impact. There are however experiments which were conducted which brought people of opposite views together for a face to face meeting. This is before the COVID-19 crisis, but that experiment worked. It continues to work … you can go and find out more on the Europe talks website.
The ability to connect with someone from the other side of the spectrum, to have a dialogue confronting their point of view with yours, should be a feature intrinsic to any social media platform. At least offer the possibility. And if the existing platforms don’t, this is an opportunity for a new, more balanced social media platform. Connecting people across boundaries, instead of confirming them. I’d subscribe in a heartbeat.