The social web is kind of a mess. Whether it’s a regimented space like Facebook, or a more laissez faire environment like Reddit, people post a lot of garbage. From baseless information, bad statistics, and fear mongering news articles, to outright racist diatribes. And two big concept are at fault: circle jerking and the filter bubble.
Circle Jerk: “When a bunch of blowhards – usually politicians – get together for a debate but usually end up agreeing with each other’s viewpoints to the point of redundancy, stroking each other’s egos as if they were extensions of their genitals (ergo, the mastubatory insinuation). Basically, it’s what happens when the choir preaches to itself.”
Filter bubble: “A filter bubble is a result of a personalized search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles.”
These two phenomena go hand in hand when it comes to the creation or sharing of what many would consider low quality, or offensive content. We’ve all seen the circlejerk on social media, after wandering into the wrong hashtag on Twitter, or accidentally commenting something innocuous on a relative’s Facebook post. Shortly thereafter one is treated to a never ending torrent of objectionable views, racism, sexism, classism, what have you. We wander back out with bloodshot eyes wondering how this kind of environment can even exist.
Reddit could be defined as the social media home of the circlejerk. Generally once a topic or focus is large enough to have an active subreddit, a complimentary circlejerk subreddit will form, for all manner of posts deemed worthless by the larger community. Most of these posts aim to make fun of the terrible posts from the larger community. Everything from NFL fans, to gaming subreddits, to fitness circle jerking.
While most of these subreddits seem like harmless fun, probably because they are, the subreddit system might be acting like a filter bubble. Users mostly interact with opinions they agree with, which may serve to strengthen the resolve of users. The same issue can arise from Facebook groups or feeds, Twitter hashtags, or any place that partitions content. It’s not the algorithm that keeps the world away from us, users are choosing to wall themselves away from opinions with which they disagree.
How many relatives, or high school acquaintances have you removed from your lists, or feeds, because you disagree with everything they post? How many posts are downvoted on Reddit not because it was “bad content,” but because people disagreed with its contents?
Social media is no longer just a time waster, or something insignificant because “it’s just the internet.” Social media has become how we construct our identities, and our online presence is a reflection of our personalities in real life. That includes the objectionable viewpoints, the impolite statements, the support of a political candidate that has no right being in this race because there was an article about his decades long diet of nothing but the tears of orphan children. And so we post these things, because that’s the identity we have.
But to what degree are we what we share? Do those things we engage in online shape us, or do we shape the internet by what we post? The answer is clearly both. Reddit banned a number of subreddits, such as r/Coontown and r/RapingWomen, home to content generally recognized as extremely offensive. So does participation in offensive content turn individuals into more offensive people? It certainly seems that was the case for r/coontown in the wake of the Charleston shooting.
Any thoughts that do make it into groups, or subreddits, hashtags, or Facebook feeds stay there with the reader and with the author, as each of our identities is created by those things we bring on board, as well as those we reject.
Pablo Barbera, a political science Ph.D. at New York University, noted that our weak social media connections can reduce political polarization (PDF) and the exposure to differing opinions could lead to an increase in people treating each other with compassion. Likewise, continued participation in extremist communities and biased feeds tends to reduce exposure to outside world views.
The issues with trolling, circle jerking, and spending all of your time inside a filter bubble, is that some users have made a hobby out of being terrible human beings. Sometimes this is unconscious: Users are slowly drawn to extremism because the filter bubble slowly draws their attention to the same sources over and over.
But there are others, who make the conscious decision to only spend time being despicable. They willinging invite infectious thoughts in, they pass them around, and make the internet and the world a worse place to be, circle jerking all the while.
So consider your activity on social media. Are you spending all your time agreeing with yourself, shrinking your worldview, and trying to hide away from those nasty differing opinions? Or is your aim to live within and create a better society. Would you be happy to wear the things you post on a t-shirt when you visited an elderly relative? Or does the rest of the world not matter, and you’re just doing it for the lols?Image Credits: Karola Riegler