Social media: birds of a feather, or just safety in numbers?

March 29, 2016

By Daniel Chandler

Starling murmurations

Image credit: 'Blick of "sort sol"' by Christoffer A Rasmussen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Aberystwyth, where I live on the west coast of Wales, is famous for its truly spectacular murmurations—huge flocks of starlings performing dazzling aerial acrobatics in unison. There could be no more striking reminder that ‘birds of a feather flock together’. In English this proverb as applied to human behaviour in which ‘like attracts like’ is countered by another that ‘opposites attract’, but the weight of psychological evidence supports the ancient principle that ‘similarity begets friendship’ (Plato) and that people ‘love those who are like themselves’ (Aristotle, from ‘Birds of a feather flock together’, In Talking the Proverbial).  More often than not we avoid those who are different and seek those we perceive to be most similar to ourselves in key respects: the principle of homophily, as outlined by the sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton in 1954.

That people tend to seek news or opinions which are in accord with their own views is a well-established finding in social psychological research. Idealists have championed the potential of social media to widen people’s horizons, creating an open public sphere in which ideas could spread rapidly, offering the potential to rejuvenate democracy. Surveys have suggested that most people believe that they are exposed to a variety of opinions on social media. However, critics have argued that in practice the ways in which social media are used tend to reinforce homophily. Exposure is one thing but actively engaging with views with which you disagree is another. Nicholas Negroponte argued in 1995 that personalization is increasingly leading our online informational diet to consist of the Daily Me (from Being Digital). More recently, the Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has insisted that ‘most people use social media not to open their horizons wider, but to lock themselves in a comfort zone’, producing what has been called an ‘echo chamber’ full of like-minded people whose viewpoints are rarely challenged. This can distort our perceptions so that our own views may seem to us to represent the general consensus.

The algorithms within social media serve up personalized content to encourage us to keep clicking, tailoring what is displayed on our timelines to what ‘people like us’ like. For instance, Facebook users tend to be exposed to news that is popular among those who share their political views. This is part of what Eli Pariser termed The Filter Bubble (2011). While this need not be an intrinsic feature of social media, it is hardly likely to be otherwise where a key function is to deliver target audiences to advertisers (the ‘echo chamber’ featured in marketing discourse well before the evolution of social networking sites). Currently, social media are not neutral tools: they are businesses. Social media are social within forms that site makers determine. ‘The tyranny of the Like’ is a normative expectation that users will click the ubiquitous Like button in response to at least some of the content shared by our friends.

President Obama recently declared that ‘democracy grinds to a halt… when we listen only to those who agree with us’. In social media, it is all too easy to silently ‘unfriend’ those with whom one disagrees, reducing our ‘friends’ to those who say what we want to hear. Stories published online are often widely circulated in social media, but this invariably generates trolling by critics of the online site’s own bias rather than political debate. Such a process not only reinforces people’s ideological positions but is also likely to make them more extreme. Debate becomes polarised into liking and hating. Democracy needs genuine dialogue rather than avoidance or confrontation.

Following an influential paper by Mark Granovetter in 1973, many sociologists argue that social cohesion and the public sphere depend on maintaining ‘weak ties’ to those whose views we do not share (performing the social function of ‘bridging’ rather than bonding). Social media have clearly facilitated the development of specialized but globally dispersed ‘communities of interest’. Like our circles of close personal friends, these are communities of our own choice rather than the unchosen communities of our families and neighbours. For many users, this offers a liberating potential. However, even this may serve to further the culture of ‘consumer choice’ at the expense of dialogue between interest groups.

Research has shown that people with a large number of social media contacts maintain regular contact with only a small percentage of these, and that the most popular reason for using social media is to find out what one’s friends are doing. Recent surveys have suggested that young people are turning away from ‘broadcast’ social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, preferring to communicate with only their closest friends via narrowcast messaging apps.

Starling murmurations reflect the rapid exchange of information for the common good. Whether someday the same can be said of social media depends not upon the technology but primarily on how their makers and users choose to use them. Perhaps this will give us pause to reflect the next time the cursor hovers over the buttons for ‘unfriend’ or ‘deactivate account’.

A Dictionary of Social Media

Daniel Chandler established the Media and Communication Studies degree in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Television Studies at Aberystwyth University in 2001. He is the author of
Semiotics: The Basics (Routledge, 2nd edition 2007), which has been translated into several languages (including Korean, Farsi, Arabic, Polish, and Chinese), and he is a consultant in marketing semiotics.

Daniel is co-editor of A Dictionary of Social Media, which was recently published online.


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