The people of the United States continue to learn how polarized and divided the nation has become. In one study released in late October by the Pew Research Center, Americans were found to have become increasingly partisan in their views. On issues as diverse as health care, immigration, race and sexuality, Americans today hold more extreme and more divergent views than they did a decade ago. The reason for this dramatic shift is a device owned by more than three out of every four Americans.
As social media has emerged over the last two decades, I have been studying how it changes innovation, and researching the effects of internet communications on consumer opinions and marketing. I developed netnography, one of the most widely used qualitative research techniques for understanding how people behave on social media. And I have used that method to better understand a variety of challenging problems that face not only businesses but governments and society at large.
What I have found has shaken up some of the most firmly held ideas that marketers had about consumers – such as how internet interest groupscan drive online purchasing and the power of stories, utopian messages and moral lessons to connect buyers with brands and each other. In one of my latest studies, my co-authors and I debunk the idea that technology might make consumers more rational and price-conscious. Instead, we found that smartphones and web applications were increasing people’s passions while also driving them to polarizing extremes.
How social media divides people
When people express themselves through social media, they communicate collectively. Rachel Ashman, Tony Patterson and I studied sharing of images of food in an intensive three-year ethnographic and netnographic study of a variety of online and physical sites. We collected and analyzed thousands of pictures, conducted 17 personal interviews and set up a dedicated research webpage where dozens of people shared their “food porn” stories.
Our results indicate that people share images of food for a number of reasons, including the desire to nurture others with photos of home-cooked food, to express belonging to certain interest groups like vegans or paleos, or to compete about, for example, who could make the most decadent dessert. But this sharing can become competitive, pushing participants to one-up each other, sharing images of food that look less and less like what regular people eat every day.
Here is how it works. Many people start by sharing food images only with people they know well. But once they broaden out to a wider group on social media, several unexpected and startling things begin to happen. First, they find sites where they can feel comfortable expressing their opinions to a like-minded “audience.”
This audience creates a community-type feeling, expressing respect and belonging for certain kinds of messages and outrage or contempt for others. Communications innovators in social media communities often also create new language forms, such as the frustrated guys in men’s-rights-oriented social media forums on Reddit bringing new life to the 19th-century word “hypergamy,” or young people creating sophisticated emoji codes in their relationship texting.
Through language and example, community members educate one another. They reinforce each others’ thinking and communication. Members of social media communities direct raw emotions into particular interests. For example, a general fear about job security might become channeled through the feedback loops on Facebook into an interest in immigrant jobs and immigration policy.
Those feedback loops have even more sensational effects. People use social media to communicate their need for things like money, attention, security and prestige. But once those people become a part of a social media platform, our research reveals how they start to look for wider audiences. Those audiences show their interest and approval by liking, sharing and commenting. And those mechanisms drive future social media behavior.
In our study of food image sharing, we wondered why the most popular food porn images depicted massive hamburgers that were impossible to eat, dripping with bacon grease, gummy worms and sparklers. Or super pizza that contained tacos, macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. The answer was that the algorithms that drive participation and attention-getting in social media, the addictive “gamification” aspects such as likes and shares, invariably favored the odd and unusual. When someone wanted to broaden out beyond his or her immediate social networks, one of the most effective ways to achieve mass appeal turned out to be by turning to the extreme.
Taking an existing norm in the community (massive burgers, say) and expanding upon it almost guaranteed a poster a few hundred likes, a dozen supportive comments and 15 minutes of social media glory. As each user tried to top the outrageous image of the user coming before, the extremes of food porn ratcheted toward ever more sensational towering burgers and cakes. Desire for what was once the extremes began to seem normal. And the ends separated farther from the few who remained in the middle.
The extreme state of the world
In our research, we suggested that the exact same mechanisms are at work in general society. As the Pew research revealed, American beliefs have become more partisan and more extreme. Religious beliefs are more fundamentalist. Political figures around the world are more polarized. Language is more crude.
Although the divided state of Americans is a bellwether for some of these unwelcome developments, the phenomenon seems to be global. A recent Mashable article blamed social media for fueling the horrific ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, a country where Facebook viewed on mobile devices has become for many people the sole source of news. Hate speech on social media has been a major and growing problem in Europe and Africa for several years now. Around the world, social media is feeding strong partisan talk with attention. Moderation and a balanced approach to ideas and discourse seem to be fading away.
The fault for these developments lies, at least in part, in people’s consumption of technology. Even without foreign interference, our research demonstrates that social media is built for polarization and extremes. The basic engagement mechanisms of popular social media sites like Facebook drive people to think and communicate in ever more extreme ways.
As people experience how these technological and social changes play out online, they will have to figure out how to adapt and change their behaviors – or risk becoming increasingly divided and driven to extremes.
Things are so bad for Republicans the GOP had to send money to Texas
In 2016, then-anti-Trump Republican Sen. Linsey Graham proclaimed, "If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed.......and we will deserve it." It seems his prediction is coming closer to fruition.
Financial reporting reveals that the Republican Party was forced to send $1.3 million to ruby-red Texas as the election nears.
It was something spotted by ProPublica developer and ex-reporter Derek Willis Sunday.
"That's never happened before," he tweeted.
He noted that the Texas GOP raised $3.3 million in August, but nearly half of that came from their national parents.
What the London ‘Blitz’ reveals about how much pain and tragedy people can handle in 2020
It's hard to imagine how 2020 could possibly get worse. "If we lose Betty White," a friend said on a drive to the Supreme Court to lay flowers.
So many Americans have lost friends or family members to COVID-19. Thousands of Americans survived the virus only to desperately needed organ transplants and forever will struggle to breathe the way they once did. Others are still suffering without smell or taste even three months after having the virus. Millions of Americans are out of work. Debt is stacking up for those trying to survive in the COVID economy. A lack of health insurance can mean hospitalizations from the virus are putting people into bankruptcy.
Stop trying to convince people you’re right — it will never persuade anyone: expert
MSNBC host Joshua Johnson noted that this year has been full of strife, with Americans having a lot to stand up about. Whether the slaying of unarmed Black men and police brutality, or healthcare, and the coronavirus, Americans are lining up to protest.
Johnson asked if people try to start tough conversations, how do they keep it productive, and when it's time to give up. In her book, We Need to Talk, Celest Headlee explains tools that people can use to have productive conversations about tough issues that help move the needle.
"Keep in mind that a protest isn't a conversation, right?" she first began. "That's a different kind of communication. The first thing is that our goal in conversations is not always a productive one. In other words, oftentimes, we go into these conversations hoping to change somebody's mind or convince them that they are wrong. You're just never going to accomplish that. There's no evidence. We haven't been able to -- through years and years of research we haven't been able to find evidence that over a conversation somebody said, 'You're right, I was completely wrong.' You've convinced me. So, we have to stop trying to do that. We have to find a new purpose for those conversations."