The turn of December into January is a time to look back at the year gone by, and onward to the one ahead. Countless news outlets will do it — they always do. Facebook already reminisced earlier this month. (Does December count for nothing?) And of course, Twitter has recapped 2015 as well. While you’re waiting for the ball to drop, you’ll likely let the memories of the past 12 months wash over you, too. It’s only natural, especially if you’re ringing in the New Year with a bang (or a buzz).
But as you close the door on 2015, pause to consider this: The news you experienced in the past year didn’t just happen around you. Rather, it was specifically curated to delight, shock, distress, and amaze you — and only you. Charlie Hebdo, Deflategate, #BlackLivesMatter, Syrian refugees, same-sex marriage, and everything in your neighborhood to a galaxy far, far away. These were all as much about the actual events as they were about how you consumed news about them. So, if you don’t like the way that the world looks today, the New Year is a great time to change the way you view it tomorrow.
Take, for example, the shooting in San Bernardino in early December. It’s a nearly universal opinion that this was a terrible, unthinkable tragedy. But beyond that viewpoint, public opinion is torn. The event stirred up many issues, including Islamist extremism and immigration reform. But viewing it through the lens of gun control, some have said the shooting showed how little firearm laws have done to stop gun attacks. But on the other side of the prism, gun safety advocates have said that existing laws didn’t go far enough to protect these victims from harm. The reality, as with most things, is likely somewhere in the middle — a place where neither parties ever met.
And we know they never met through some interesting data visualization. After the shooting, data scientists at Betaworks plotted out the gun-related posts of social media users. What they found was that in the days that followed the shooting, three major groups led the conversation on social media. One group included gun safety advocates, another consisted of Second Amendment defenders, and the third was made up of hunters and sportsmen. That these groups emerged wasn’t a surprise, but what was unexpected was how little intermixing these groups had.
In plotting the posts of these social media users on a graph, it became clear that there were relatively few messages sent between gun safety advocates and the other two groups, which did talk to each other, though they were clearly divided on the issue. In reporting the story, Fortune’s Jeff John Roberts writes, “People largely exchanged information with those who already shared the same views: Gun control people talked to like-minded people, and the Second Amendment people did the same.” This helps explain why another shooting has come and gone, and no laws or policies have changed as a result of it.
This silo'ed behavior should shock no one living in the social media age. In fact, it’s not much different than the behavior of Congress, where in-fighting seems to be the only real debate as bills continually languish un-passed. Many in the general population find the inaction reprehensible, but as representatives of the people, you’d must admit, they’re doing a bang-up job.
After all, through carefully curated friend lists and newsfeeds, we have surrounded ourselves with people we mostly agree with. And ultimately that affects how we get our news, or at least, who we get it from.
It’s a common, increasingly louder refrain across the political spectrum that the mainstream media is getting stories wrong, or not reporting on them at all. Whether reporting methodologies have changed as we’ve moved from paper and ink to pixels and glass is a subject for another story, but what is clear is that the way people find and read news has dramatically changed over the past decade.
Social media has provided the biggest shift in the delivery of content since the advent of printing press. According to the Pew Research Center, 66% of U.S. adults use Facebook, and 41% get their news from the social network. To paint the picture for what it truly is, a near-majority of the voters in the world’s most prosperous nation inform their worldview through the same website that they use to share kitten videos, Benedict Cumberbatch memes, and baby pictures.
Surrounding ourselves only with people with whom we agree — blocking a friend’s updates here, unfollowing another user there — only makes things more insular. But that’s only part of the problem. Facebook constantly refines the News Feed to show you posts it thinks you'll like (and block out those you don’t). Let’s say you have a couple of Facebook friends, one named Riley and the other named Casey. Riley has an amazingly photogenic puppy, while Casey is a crank. Blocking Casey’s posts is easy, and will brush the gloom out of your day. And the more puppy pictures you like, the more likely it is that Riley’s posts will populate your news feed. And with that, you’ve handed editorial control of your news diet over to a French bulldog. That may be oversimplifying the complexities of how Facebook’s algorithms work, but not by much.
Short of actually going to a website to get your news — an arduous and antiquated method of staying informed — there is a way you can to change the world around you. But it will require you to step out of your social media comfort zone. This year, resolve to follow people online with whom you don’t agree, even ones who make you uncomfortable. Follow Donald Trump, despite what your friends will think. Friend Bernie Sanders; if he seems genuine, maybe that’s because his followers mostly are. Heck, hit up Taye Diggs online — he'll probably even add you back. We share this rock with those people, regardless of whether we agree with them or not. Instead of blocking them out, try to understand them, at least.
The point of this shift isn't just to expand your world — that’s easy, and Facebook’s algorithms already automatically do that for you, anyway. Instead, connect with other people’s worlds to learn what it’s like to live on their side of the planet. Or at least their side of the street.