October 28, 2015

MALPASS | Antisocial Media

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Once upon a time, I could sit down, focus and hammer out an assignment in no time. Oh, to have those days back.  Now that I’m here at Cornell, doing work feels like pulling teeth more often than not. There are just too many distractions; the TV, easy access to food, my housemates constantly walking into my room unannounced and generally unwelcome. But above all, now that I work almost entirely on a computer, the Internet is just a click away.

You know, given the amount of time I spend per day on the computer, you might be surprised to learn how much I hate social media sites. That’s not to say I don’t still go on them, in fact I’d rather not calculate the actual time per day I spend on these sites — it’d be too depressing. They’re just not that interesting anymore. The thing is, I still like them just enough to keep going back, but not enough to actually enjoy my time there.

Now, I certainly don’t want to sound like one of those assholes that lectures on the evils of computers before immediately checking their phones afterward. It’s ironic enough that this column is published online. But beyond that, I understand there are many advantages to social media. For one, it has made it incredibly easy to spread ideas and raise awareness to important issues. Without the internet, I doubt police brutality or environmental infractions would be as well documented as they are now.

Considering social media’s ability to connect a vast and varied assortment of people, you might expect a more tolerant and rational population? Head on over to the comments section of any YouTube video and tell me if that’s the case. Not too pretty, is it?

While social media gives us a chance to be exposed to new viewpoints, it’s mostly used as a way to flock together with other like-minded individuals. Of course, this by itself is not necessarily bad. It’s natural to gravitate towards people with the same interests and ideas, but just like in real life, it can come at the cost of ignoring others who have opposing — but equally valid — viewpoints. The difference is, when we disagree with someone online, we can just ignore them. I suppose you can also do this in real life (as I have done and probably will continue to on occasion), but it’s much less acceptable and tends to look pretty childish.When done on a large scale, this can have undesirable consequences. Being able to ignore any disagreeable opinion while at the same time being able to retreat back into the comfort of a likeminded group doesn’t foster dialogue, it insulates from criticism and discomfort. Have a stupid belief? Instead of dealing with it and growing as a person, you can pull the wool over your eyes and seek comfort in others doing the same.

Social media sites tend to foster this behavior. Any website that features some form of voting system, be it Facebook’s Likes, Reddit’s Upvotes or, even more broadly, Tumblr’s sharing system, promotes posts that are most likely to garner the most attention (true everywhere, real world included, but especially relevant here). Being a successful poster means appealing to the site’s user base in the broadest way possible.

I’ll use Reddit as an example since it’s the system I’m most familiar with. The site works via users sharing links to different sections (known as “subreddits”). Every other user can then either “upvote” or “downvote” the link, which determines where on the website the link appears. On paper, it seems like a completely harmless system, except the tally for total upvotes is recorded for every link you submit, and if you think valueless little points on a social media site are meaningless to the majority of the site’s users, think again. Racking up as many upvotes as possible is the goal for many redditors.

So, users have an incentive (frankly a dumb one, but an incentive nonetheless) to submit content that will appeal to the most people. So even though the news article you see appears to be bias free, the only reason you see it is because it has been voted on as acceptable material by the hive mind. Any sort of differing opinion is likely to be at best ignored, or at worst harassed.

Of course, no one online can force you to do or think anything, but (at the risk of sounding like a PTA Guidance Counselor) just be mindful of what you’re reading. Likely what you are viewing is the opinion or slant most valued by the community. It’s easy to claim media giants like Fox News and MSNBC have agendas (not arguing with that), but it’s good to keep in mind the little websites you go to to procrastinate or even get news also have opinions they will and will not tolerate. Bias isn’t just in what’s being written, it’s also in what’s being shared.

Soren Malpass is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at skm94@cornell.edu. Sorenity Now appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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