The Sunday Edition

The democratic promise of social media has been killed by "the bubble" - Michael's essay

"The bubble, especially the notorious Facebook bubble, protects us from views which differ politically or culturally from our own. Like the bubble boy from early Seinfeld, all political and social contaminants have to be filtered out for our own emotional safety."
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There was a time, shortly after the earth cooled, when a person, a man or a woman, had a fairly workable idea of where they belonged in the great sweep of the cosmos.

You could go to school and in your workbook conjugate the geography of your material existence.

Michael Enright, 114 Maplewood Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, North America, Western Hemisphere, World, Universe.  Simple, straightforward.

Then along came the Internet, the great dislocator. Suddenly we were connected to and directed by unknown forces never before seen in nature.

Seemingly overnight, there were algorithms, downloads, URLs, PDFs, smart phones, live streaming and podcasts. We all went back to school, to classes at Technology Tech.

Just as we graduated, some with honours, along came social media. We were faced with Facebook, taunted by Twitter, jammed by Instagram. We had to go back to school - again.

The bubble, especially the notorious Facebook bubble, protects us from views which differ politically or culturally from our own. Like the bubble boy from early Seinfeld, all political and social contaminants have to be filtered out for our own emotional safety.- Michael Enright

Social media was hailed as the greatest advance in modern liberal democracy since Thomas Jefferson sat down to write. It democratically transformed everybody with access to a computer or a mobile phone, to an instant expert on everything.

We could be our own private radio station or newspaper or magazine. We could write and publish whatever we wanted. It could be stuff that was true or stuff that was simply made up.

Which turned social media into a fever swamp of trolls, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, fake news and the alt-right.

And that created the phenomena of the filter bubble and the echo chamber.

Suddenly, all the old familiar anchorages disappeared. The road signs vanished into an oncoming fog. I find myself floating in the free air between a bubble and an echo chamber. And I don't know which is which.

The bubble, especially the notorious Facebook bubble, protects us from views which differ politically or culturally from our own. Like the bubble boy from early Seinfeld, all political and social contaminants have to be filtered out for our own emotional safety.

We look only to those ideas which are consonant with our own. We shun difference. We abhor deviation from what we consider conventional norms.

If we see only what we want to see, or read only those views we agree with, we become smaller as citizens and as human beings.- Michael Enright

Writing in Wired Magazine shortly after the November election in the US, Mostafa El-Bermawy suggested that the social bubbles of Facebook and Google were actually shaping new realities in the country. "We only see and hear what we like." He entitled his piece "Your Filter Bubble is Destroying Democracy."

"The global village," he says, "has been replaced by digital islands of isolation that are drifting further apart each day."

This echo chamber effect limits our chances for any kind of sensible conversation with anyone with ideas, opinions, perceptions different from our own. 

It all reminds me of Stephen King's mammoth novel, "Under the Dome", about a mysterious  structure which suddenly covers a small town in Maine. With no way out, the townsfolk quickly break into factions . The progressive element in the small town feels squeezed by the jingoistic American Firsters. Even though the two sides are trapped under the same dome, they have no way of effectively communicating with each other.

In the end both sides go mad; the Dome has won.

I'm not sure the Twitter bubble or the Facebook echo chamber will destroy democracy. But carried to an extreme, they will limit our understanding of difference.

If we see only what we want to see, or read only those views we agree with, we become smaller as citizens and as human beings.

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