As we all spend more time online these days, scrolling away on social media, commenting and sharing as our way to communicate with the world, a number of things are happening. One of them is that, as in the real world, we become the people we surround ourselves with.
It’s not like we one day decided to be “just like” this person or that person, it’s much more subtle than that, but it holds true in the real world, and I believe it holds true online as well. To explain, let me offer some research from this article that is now a couple of years old, but has some staggering implications for how we use social media:
I’m sure you’ve heard some motivational speaker or life coach repeat this statement over and over again in one form or another, but is it true?
According to some research no, it’s not true. It’s actually worse than that:
Because they had data spanning over three decades, they were able to show a real cause-and-effect relationship between individual friends (and friends of friends) and weight gains. While the researchers looked for a variety of explanations, the most likely one appears to be norms. If your friend is obese or a friend of a friend is obese, that changes your perception of what is an acceptable body size and your behavior changes accordingly.
And it doesn’t stop at obesity. In a follow-up study, Christakis and Fowler found something similar with smoking rates. Using the same social network data they had borrowed from the Framingham Heart Study, they found that if your friend smokes, you are 61 percent more likely to be a smoker yourself. If a friend of your friend smokes, you are still 29 percent more likely to smoke. And for a friend of a friend, the likelihood is 11 percent. Perhaps the most telling study was of happiness. The two researchers found that happy friends make you happier — no surprise there.But if your friend of a friend of a friend is happy with their life, then you have a 6 percent greater likelihood of being happy yourself. Now six percent might not seem like much, but consider that other studies suggest that if I gave you a $10,000 raise, that would only trigger about a 2 percent increase in your happiness.
I want to really zone in on this idea of social norms though, because what I’ve seen over the years on social media, and has only been amplified more recently, is that social media feeds itself on what I call the “outrage cycle”, and tribes.
It usually goes something like this:
- Event occurs that makes one tribe or another angry
- Event is shared on social media
- Tribe expresses outrage
- Other members of said tribe join in, raising the level of “engagement” on social media and ensuring it goes viral
- Non-tribe member(s) question the story, offer an alternative explanation
- Tribe members go “mob justice” on the non-tribe member
- Other non-tribe members step in to defend their own
- Lots of name-calling, threats of violence, hatred, and random ugliness ensues
The thing is, if you asked anyone who took part in any of this, they’d tell you that they aren’t mean and hateful, but the other side is. Yet, if you just popped in and read their timeline on it’s own, out of context? Mean and hateful. The perception of what is hateful and rude and what is acceptable is being colored by the company they keep online and not just the 5 people they follow most closely, but by the larger and larger circles of accounts they follow, and the accounts those people follow, and so on. Within that context, what they are doing seems just normal.
We are all influenced by the people around us. If you live in an area where everyone around you has red hair, you’re perception will be that the majority of people in the world have red hair, when the actual global statistics say otherwise.
If you don’t know anyone who was abused as a child, your perception may be that it’s rare, if you spend all of your time reading about child abuse, your perception may be that everyone is either an abuser or a victim.
See how this works?
On social media, you are not only surrounded by the people you decide to follow, but thanks to algorithms you are actually surrounded by the things you choose to interact with. Accounts you don’t really interact with eventually disappear from your feeds. So, what do you interact with? If you interact with one topic most of the time, you’ll get more of it, and your perception will be that this is the norm. “Everyone thinks the way I do”, so obviously anyone who disagrees is wrong, and when someone is wrong, they are outside the norms of society and deserve ridicule. Suddenly you find yourself online talking about how you hope people get COVID19, or that their kids get sick, or someone they know gets raped, etc. Outside of your group, these comments seem ridiculous, but when you’re the 15th person to say it in your online group? They don’t seem ridiculous at all.
But, they are ridiculous. They are callous, and hateful.
Suddenly, you are a bully. You are hateful. You are miserable and angry. Not because you set out to be, but because you see all of these behaviors carried out around you every day and they just seem kind of normal. Now that so many of us are communicating and interacting online more, what we perceive as acceptable is morphing to match what we see around us online every day.
But, we don’t have to be this way. Much like those motivational speakers will tell you about your friends, online you choose what communities to be part of. I’m not saying you should ditch all of your friends that have habits you don’t want to emulate, mostly because we’d all have no friends then, but what I am saying is that we need to be careful with what communities we dedicate our time and attention to. Is that community leading you to normalize behaviors that are not acceptable to you? Are your perceptions of what is “normal” overly influenced by one group or another? Is your social media feed leading you to believe things that are not accurate, based on the fact that your feed is full of people talking about something that outside of your feed, is barely a “thing”?
In real life, you always have a choice. Think about those statistics about smoking for example. Yes, if you see people around you or your friends smoking it will seem more “normal”. But that doesn’t make you pick up a cigarette. You still choose to do that or not do that, and if you don’t do it, likely it’s because you have information from outside of that group that helps you decide not to do it.
But that requires being mindful of what information we are taking in, and making conscious decisions about not only who and what we follow, but maintaining a humble attitude about how those things may be influencing our perceptions. Sadly, I don’t see a lot of examples of that. Increasingly, I see a lot of people on social media who seem to think they “know” all they need to know, because their tribe is in agreement.
In my opinion, it’s that agreement that is the most dangerous thing. It’s that agreement that creates “us” as opposed to “them”, and as soon as you dehumanize another living person that way, it’s open season for hateful behavior. Especially if your online tribe accepts and rewards that behavior.
Who do you want to be? Is that reflected in your social media use?