Social media: how did we get here?

Image from Shutterstock.com
2018

One of the great ironies of the digital revolution is that while the world has been transformed into a hyper-connected community enabling instant collaboration, social media platforms have managed to divide us into a collection of fractious tribes that are wholly incapable of even basic compromises. Over the past few years, this fomenting tribalism has become troublesome as mutual accusations of bias among all the various clans have justified a plummet into a lack of basic civil behavior.

As is typical of tribal behavior, intense loyalty to one’s kind often fosters a false sense of self-righteousness that makes it all too easy to glorify those who think like us and to demonize those who don’t. Looking around, it seems that no tribe is immune from the toxicity of self-righteousness. We are reminded of Daniel Kahneman’s and Amos Tversky’s sage insights about the hazards of the unconscious biases that are inherent in human nature: “We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” Unfortunately, one of the perils of tribal behavior is that it tends to promote collective unconscious blindness.

How is it that technological innovations that held so much promise for broadening human horizons have instead amplified the worst attributes of human nature? But more importantly, what can we do to restore the promise?

All Voices Matter

The antidote to tribalism is diversity, especially diversity of thought. If we don’t engage with people who think differently, we can’t expand our understanding of the world around us, we miss out on opportunities for the serendipity that is the catalyst for breakthrough thinking, and, as a consequence, we become prisoners to the tyranny of rigid parochialism.

Perhaps this is why the founders of the United States made free speech the cornerstone of their social experiment. In their new form of government, no authority would be able to silence another’s voice, no matter how eccentric or quarrelsome. They made a clear choice that the risks of allowing all voices to matter were far less than the pitfalls of silencing even one voice. The founders had a profound faith in the genius of the people and knew that our best thinking was more likely to emerge from their collective wisdom than from the precepts of an elite few.

In his seminal book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki provides powerful insights into the greatly underappreciated phenomenon of collective intelligence and explains both how and why the crowd tends to be smarter than individuals, as long as certain attributes are present.

The first of these attributes is diversity of opinion. Encouraging different perspectives, including what many might consider eccentric notions, broadens the available information, provides the capacity for evolving ideas, and protects against the negative dynamics of shortsighted groupthink. This is why diversity is the countermeasure to the inherent biases in tribalism.

The second attribute is independent thinking. Surowiecki emphasizes that each individual must be free to express his or her own opinions without editing and without any pressure to conform to the beliefs of others in the group. In other words, without individual freedom of speech, collective wisdom is not possible. Surowiecki makes the point that “paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.” This is in sharp contrast to groupthink where the price for nonconformity is often ostracization and explains why collective wisdom is the polar opposite of groupthink.

The remaining two attributes are local knowledge, which is the capability to draw upon specialized and localized information, and aggregation mechanisms, which are processes or algorithms for integrating the content of everyone’s observations and opinions. The latter is critical because without a well-constructed aggregation mechanism, accessing collective intelligence becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The Expansion of Platforms

When the founders of the United States made free speech the cornerstone of their new democracy, the only practical social platform for both encouraging and inhibiting open dialogue was the government. At the time, the primary vehicles for the dissemination of ideas were books, newspapers, and speeches in the public square. In an eighteenth-century world, the government was, for all practical purposes, the only social entity with the wherewithal to exercise censorship. By outlawing government censorship, the founders were able to accomplish the practical mission of assuring free speech and the propagation of a diversity of ideas that they felt were critical to the development of their young nation.

For more than two centuries, this bold experiment in free speech and trust in the genius of the people resulted in an explosion of innovation that defined and accelerated the growth of a nation. While certainly far from perfect, this novel, often messy, approach to economic and political organization worked, probably beyond the founders’ wildest expectations. However, over the past two decades, new technologies have dramatically reshaped both traditional media and the public square by creating new and unprecedented platforms for social discourse with the practical effect that the government is no longer the sole social entity that can exercise censorship.

These new platforms are the social media companies, and because they operate in the private sector, they are not legally bound by free speech laws. This is likely to change, and unless the social media companies correct for a missed opportunity, they are likely to be the consequences rather than the co-creators of change because the current environment of tribalism that they have enabled is not only unbearably toxic but clearly unsustainable.

Algorithms

The lifeblood of social media platforms is algorithms. An algorithm is a set of rules that is used to process calculations in problem-solving. One of the earliest examples of the power of algorithms was the rapid rise of Google (disclosure: the author is invested long) in the late 1990’s. Google was a late entry into a crowded field of upstart search engines that were vying for the lead position in the burgeoning new market. In the mid-1990’s, it appeared that Yahoo would be the likely winner because, at the time, search was an editorial exercise using a cataloguing system similar to library science, and Yahoo had the best editorial experts. Instead, an innovative system that relied upon computer algorithms rather than expert human judgment enabled Google to become an overnight sensation and the longtime dominant leader of Internet search.

Google’s original algorithm - called PageRank - used collective intelligence rather than editorial experts to rank pages by doing a link analysis to determine which sites were the most visited by the users. The original algorithm was consistent with Surowiecki’s four attributes and is referenced as an example of collective intelligence in his book.

While the core elements of Google’s algorithms are proprietary, it is clear that over the past two decades the algorithm has evolved from its original rules. In particular, search today appears to blend collective intelligence with customized personal search patterns. Thus, for example, if you play Powerball on a regular basis and frequently check your numbers by Googling Powerball, as soon as you enter the letter “P,” the full word “Powerball” will be offered as a search option. Again, we can’t be sure because of proprietary considerations, but it appears today the Google algorithm likely reflects some combination of collective intelligence and human steering.

Facebook has also built customization into its evolving algorithms. Early on the popular site’s news feed presented its visitors with multiple perspectives on current events. But a few years ago, the algorithm was modified to present only the news that is consistent with people’s pre-disposed narratives. In their book The Truth Machine, authors Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna point out, “Consider how Facebook’s secret algorithm chooses the news to suit your ideological bent, creating echo chambers of like-minded angry or delighted readers who are ripe to consume and share dubious information that confirms their pre-existing political biases.”

Human Steering

The human steering by the custodians of social media platforms appears to be a strong contributing factor to our current state of fractious tribalism. When these custodians are overwhelming aligned with one of the tribes, it is not surprising that people aligned with other tribes feel that the human steering is attempting to silence their voices. Whether this claim is true or not remains to be seen. However, regardless of affiliation or like-mindedness, if the principle of free speech is to remain the cornerstone of social discourse, we need to assure that no authority has the wherewithal to silence the voices of those who think differently on any practical social platform.

Hopefully, the leaders of the social media platforms will follow the example of the American founders by placing their trust in the genius of the people and sustaining their platforms on the fundamental principle that all voices matter. If they fail at this critical task, we run the risk that the government will step in and impose its own form of human steering, which is likely to exacerbate rather than to solve the problem.

Next month, I will focus on an opportunity for the social media companies to evolve their platforms and hopefully diminish the pervasive tribalism by identifying new pathways for bringing us together.

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About The Author

Rod Collins
Rod Collins

Rod Collins is the Innovation Sherpa at Salt Flats and the author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World (AMACOM Books).