Segregation in the Social Web?

One of the best reasons to start blogging, tweeting, and engaging in social media is the fact that you can now reach out to people across the globe. Before social media, an American might never have the chance to befriend someone from Uganda, or India, or Argentina. Social media breaks down the physical barriers and connects us with those we might never have the chance to meet otherwise. In that way, it should be fostering a better cross-cultural understanding by helping people in different parts of the world realize our commonalities – rather than our differences.

But while I’m sure there are plenty of bloggers and Tweeters from across the globe engaging in the social web, unfortunately I fear that our self-made ‘filters’ are keeping us from experiencing the full benefits of social media sphere. See the brilliant TED talk below, by Eli Pariser.

Pariser argues that every website we interact with – from Google to Facebook to Amazon – is ‘filtering’ information we’re exposed to, thus showing us only what we’re already interested in. Google, for example, is so customized today that there is no ‘standard’ Google. Google’s search algorithm takes into account everything from the country you’re in, the computer you’re logged onto, to your browser and search history – and starts filtering your search results accordingly. This means that we rarely get exposed to new information and different viewpoints. Scary, isn’t it?

The same phenomenon is even more pronounced, I believe, in social media channels. For instance, in Twitter and blogging, we usually choose to follow people with similar interests and passions. Of course, this is natural, and is a good thing when it comes to forming a supportive community.

But does this mean we just interact with people who look like us? I’m sure that the vast majority of people I follow live in the U.S. or the West, are middle to upper class, relatively educated and privileged people. And of course, they lean liberal and care about social issues.

So…there’s a problem here. Not only am I getting exposed only to viewpoints I may already hold, but when it comes to talking about aid, development, and human rights, I’m afraid we’re getting caught in an ‘online echo chamber.’

For instance, I’ve observed that the vast majority of “aid and development” bloggers seem to be white, American/Western, well educated, and with years of experience in the ‘aid’ or ‘human rights’ fields. But since we’re talking about aid and development, which primarily concerns people in the global South, shouldn’t we be listening to & learning from a more diverse group of people? Shouldn’t we be talking to citizens of India, Uganda, Panama, or Afghanistan? Aid work concerns people in these countries – but we aren’t talking to them!  Instead, it increasingly seems like we’re talking amongst ourselves and sticking to the group of Western intellectuals that makes us feel most comfortable. But I don’t just want to hear from professors and established aid workers; I want to listen to and interact with people from all over the world. I want to hear from people whose lives and countries are affected by aid, development, and human rights issues.

Certainly, there are some barriers. Language, for one. I don’t know many languages other than English; my Spanish is maybe passable. Most Americans are in the same boat. This makes it harder for us to join twitter & blog conversations happening worldwide.

Another barrier, I think is simply the digital divide. Most poor people in developing countries don’t have access to the Internet, and even if they did many wouldn’t know about social media/blogging and might lack the language skills to articulate what they want to say. So while we may get to talk to people in India or Uganda, for example, we won’t easily be able to chat with those in India or Uganda living on $2 a day. We’d probably end up talking to the more well-off folks in these societies as well. The digital divide is also exacerbated in countries like China, where many social media channels are simply blocked. But in my mind, we should at least begin conversing with those who do have access – that’s a start and a way to getting more diverse perspectives.

To start changing things, we will need more initiatives to expand access to the Internet; it would be great if non-profits taught people how to blog and use Twitter. A couple of great examples I can think of:

1) Blogger Kate Otto encouraged her friend, Glory Kimonge, also in Tanzania, to write a blog post – which was fascinating and wonderful to read.

2) Non-profit Epic Change got Mama Lucy, who runs Shepherds Junior school in Tanzania, to blog and tweet and also encouraged the students themselves  (“Twitterkids”) to Tweet! This was an awesome initiative, in my mind. I think we need more initiatives like this, and not just as fundraising campaigns, but simply for the sake of encouraging exchange of diverse perspectives & reducing the digital divide. I really think this can be enlightening not only for us, but also for those who are getting introduced to the power of social media for the first time.

The Epic Change "Twitterkids" - Students from Shepherds Junior School in Tanzania, tweeting! Don't tell me this isn't adorable and awesome!

Despite these challenges, I think we have a tremendous chance here to truly make use of the incredible opportunities made available to us by social media. To that end, let me quote @johnrougeux: “How about 3 T’s?: Travel to other places, use Twitter to find new voices, and Talk to people you meet w/different perspectives.”

Let’s do our best, as social media lovers, activists, aid workers, human rights lawyers, non-profit advocates and bloggers – to eradicate the digital divide. Our part lies in opening our eyes and ears to new perspectives online, and encouraging those we know around the world to join the social media spheres.

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14 Responses to Segregation in the Social Web?

  1. Tatiana says:

    This is really fantastic. But I’d like to think that it’s not just on the internet we do this, but real life as well. A lot of people consider themselves open-minded, but I’ve met very few people who regularly associate with others different from themselves. Open-mindedness tends to translate as: I’m not against the idea of you versus the physical act of surrounding yourself with different types of people with various view points. 

    And, yes, I agree that when it comes to blogging, it’s very much about “speaking to the choir” because everyone already believes what you believe. So our ideas don’t become challenged because a feminist is less likely to publicly engage someone who has anti-women viewpoints simply because of the innate difficulty of trying to talk to someone who is different. This isn’t to say that conversations can’t be had, or that they’re impossible – it’s just that I think it can be hard to try to start a dialogue with someone who doesn’t “get it”. 

    The language barrier is a massive problem, I believe, in the US. Few Americans, I believe, know secondary languages which can also make it difficult to read blogs that might be from westernized countries (ie: Germany or France) but not in English. 

    So I definitely think I’ll make a personal effort to find new types of blogs and bloggers to follow – increase my ability to interact with those different from me! 

    Great post! 

    • Akhila says:

       Completely agree – we do it in real life too, and this behavior of ‘self-segregation’ has spilled over into the internet and social media channels too. In some ways, it is natural – we are drawn to people with similar backgrounds, experiences, opinions, because we can relate to them the most. But on the other hand, this makes us so insulated from other opinions that we become stuck in our own little world. Most people do not surround themselves with different viewpoints & backgrounds in real life OR online.

      That’s my worry about blogging too. I don’t want to preach to the choir – if everyone already agrees with me, then what am I adding or contributing? Is anyone really learning anything new?

      But at the same time, I do feel I’ve learned a lot of new things after jumping into social media. I follow more than 800 people and the perspectives I get through Twitter are *definitely* far more diverse than what I get in real life. So in some ways, I feel it has worked and helped expose me to new perspectives. I feel like I learn something new every day. Still, it’s not perfect and we can/should go further.

  2. Ruth Jackson says:

    Thought-provoking and spot on post again, Akhila. This is one area where social media could be so much more powerful than traditional media where journalists (who are almost invariably like us), tell the stories of the people who aren’t like us.

    It’s so easy to be segregated in our lives, especially in the West but also in any city where there are a number of expats. I’ve found myself slipping into this here in Vietnam and it’s not just because of the language barrier, it’s often because it’s just easier. I’ve also found it hard to establish genuine friendships without an agenda (on either side) – except when having met through a common interest. 

    Skimming my feed reader I’m guilty of this homogeneity online too – even though I read blogs from a range of countries and genres, they’re pretty much all middle class. I’m not sure what the twitter make-up is in Vietnam, definitely going to look into that and try to diversify my stream there. It’s actually my facebook that’s most diverse – from high school classmates who aren’t so middle class (most of whom I’ve hidden from my feed as I find their updates uninteresting/irrelevant, ironically enough) to a handful of locals I’ve met in my travels. But to be honest I don’t engage or listen often because we don’t have much in common. There are some exceptions but it’s only when their message or delivery is engaging (that can even win me over when I’m not that interested in the topic).

    You’ve also challenged me as a English Language Teacher to think about how I could integrate this into my future work to help get the voices out there. However a barrier to this is freedom as you mentioned with China and is equally applicable in many countries worldwide. In these cases, how can we encourage this without endangering people? And more broadly, how can we encourage social media use from the ground up without it being viewed as another Western imposement? Certainly people like Mama Lucy that you mentioned are key, so how do we find and empower them?

    • Akhila says:

       Sorry for the late response, Ruth, but thanks for your thoughtful comment. I definitely agree that it’s often easier to slip into familiar modes of thinking, like hanging out with Expats or befriending people who are just like you. But then again, often it is very fulfilling and enriching to befriend and learn from people who are different from you. The question is, as you’ve mentioned, how we can overcome the barriers: language, social class, different interests, etc. Class and language are so powerful. When people are from a different social class often it affects everything – their interests, opportunities, backgrounds and it’s hard to truly become friends. We have to find ways to transcend these barriers and boundaries. I wonder how to do it.

      As to your last question, definitely empowering local leaders like school teachers, council members, nurses, doctors, is a start to helping us reach a broader audience. If we can get them engaged on social media then they can reach out to their clients, patients, etc and eventually, we can build a more robust conversation around aid and development. It’s not easy, though!

  3. Bonnie Koenig says:

    Excellent observations, Akhila.  I’ve  written about this ‘echo chamber’ as well.  As Tatiana notes in her comments, in many ways our online communication and interactions mirror those we engage in offline.  Some people are more comfortable in ‘voluntarily segregated’ communities, others thrive on diversity, and some of us like a combination of both.  On the web or in real life, though, we grow the most personally and professionally when we reach out of our comfort zones.  We do have the ability to do that both in real life and virtually, it just takes a little more effort.  Thanks for encouraging us all to keep making those extra efforts.

    • Akhila says:

      It definitely takes a bit more effort, but I think it’s well worth it. Also, as I have highlighted, non-profits themselves can facilitate social media and blogging projects from their beneficiaries. Non-profits that are providing any services, for example, microfinance, health services, legal services, trainings, etc could definitely over time encourage and train some of their beneficiaries in using social media. That’s why I liked the Epic Change idea I included in the post; the organization was able to get students in Tanzania, who are very young (primary/middle school) to tweet — if that is possible, then the possibilities seem endless to me! Of course, this is tied to fundraising efforts, but even otherwise it could be a valuable way to add new perspectives.

  4. This was a great read, Akhila. Those in the social media club tend to assume that they represent the universe or that everyone is on Twitter or other social networks. It’s always comfortable and reassuring to talk to people who are exactly like us. These new tools offer great potential in connecting to new people and different voices but we don’t always use them to the best of their ability. Notice how Twitter even shows us ‘People who are similar to you’!!

    • Akhila says:

      Completely agree – Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, blogs, and social media in general is targeted towards helping you find others like you. The challenge is to step outside the box and try to find new perspectives!

  5. This was a great read, Akhila. Those in the social media club tend to assume that they represent the universe or that everyone is on Twitter or other social networks. It’s always comfortable and reassuring to talk to people who are exactly like us. These new tools offer great potential in connecting to new people and different voices but we don’t always use them to the best of their ability. Notice how Twitter even shows us ‘People who are similar to you’!!

  6. This was a great read, Akhila. Those in the social media club tend to assume that they represent the universe or that everyone is on Twitter or other social networks. It’s always comfortable and reassuring to talk to people who are exactly like us. These new tools offer great potential in connecting to new people and different voices but we don’t always use them to the best of their ability. Notice how Twitter even shows us ‘People who are similar to you’!!

  7. Really interesting piece. It reminds me of something Deepak Chopra write (which I heard recently via Marie Forleo) about how we have 65,000 thoughts per day and 99% of them are the same thoughts that we had yesterday. That blows my mind.

    As with most things, the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the internet are the same. The ability to connect with and build communities of like-minded people on the one hand, versus the self-selection involved with absorbing content you agree with. It’s a fine balance.

    We certainly need to listen to more voices in the development blogging space, IMO. Diversity is a strength in any field. 

    • Akhila says:

      It definitely is a strength that the internet allows us to connect with like minded individuals and build strong communities. It is the aspect that I have loved the most. At the same time, I recognize the danger of getting into our comfort zone and simply staying there. We have to assess whether we are hearing from new voices and particularly, if we’re hearing the voices of people from the global South when we’re discussing development.

      If it’s just a bunch of straight white males discussing the livelihood of poor black women online, isn’t there something wrong with that picture?

  8. [...] Segregation in the social web – Social media can be an echo chamber. Are we having the discussions about social justice with the right people? Are the poor & oppressed included in the conversation? [...]

  9. Payton_vege says:

    Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

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