Social Identity, Twitter, and the Collective Mind

One of my all time favourite television shows was the much too short-lived comedy-drama titled, “Freaks and Geeks”. The show centered around two siblings, and how each of them navigated their way throughout high school. Many viewers have mentioned that “Freaks and Geeks” was one of the most accurate television depictions of high school yet. I think what made the show develop such a strong cult following was not the show’s portrayal of high school itself, but it’s portrayal of social identity within a high school setting. One of the reasons I say this is due to the fact that the show is set in the 1980’s, a decade in which I was only just born into the world. Yet, so many viewers who were not yet of school age in the 1980’s (including myself) still tend to feel such a strong attachment to the television program’s motifs and characters.

That, to me, just demonstrates how social identity really is a timeless issue. And although (at times) it may seem that the young adolescent genre almost holds a monopoly on the stories surrounding social identity; I will say that the theme is not only alive and well, but flourishing in every other aspect of our human existence.

The basis of social identity theory revolves around the concept of “In-groups” and “Out-groups” (and high school comes to mind yet again when seeing those two terms, but I digress). The theory was made popular by social psychologist, Henri Tajfel. Without going into too much detail, largely because of the fact that I’m definitely no historian of social psychology; social identity theory suggests that members belonging to an in-group will tend to seek out negative aspects of an out-group in order to enhance their self-image.

According to the theory, society operates on a “them” and “us” mentality. We see examples of this everywhere: Liberals and Conservatives, the NBA Eastern Conference and Western Conference, blue collar workers and white collar workers, upper management and their subordinates. You get the idea. And while the above examples are all so very obvious, they do help when it comes to visualizing the general idea of social identity.

I think what has become of such importance, especially now in this day and age of digital media, is just how much of an influence social media has on not only a person’s particular group affiliation (in-group), but the way in which they view their group’s counterpart (out-group).

I recently listened to a podcast which featured Jack Dorsey, who is the co-founder and current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the popular social networking platform, Twitter. Supposedly every second, about 6000 tweets are sent via the Twitter platform, so how does one sift through all of the noise generated by Twitter? I mean, a social platform is only as good as the amount of value it’s content can provide us. Well, similar to other modern social networking platforms, Twitter allows one to curate a news feed to their own liking. While the curation of a user’s news feed has it’s benefits to the user, [curation] might also introduce a number of social implications.

Let’s look at the following examples:

  1. Marshall, a stay-at-home parent, decides to follow 10 Twitter accounts dedicated to meal recipes that can be cooked in 20-minutes or less. As he checks his Twitter news feed, he notices more suggested content which closely relates to the accounts that he had chosen to follow. His meal preparations and cook times become much quicker, and he has more time to spend with his kids and his hobbies.
  2. Ted, who is also a stay-at-home parent, decides to follow 10 Twitter accounts related to holistic medicine. As he checks his news feed, he notices that each of these 10 Twitter accounts do not support the use of medical vaccinations on children. He also begins to notice more suggested content based on the 10 accounts that he had previously followed, and decides to follow the additional content as well. Ted then decides against medically vaccinating his children, and also begins to publicly condemn others for wanting to vaccinate their children.

Marshall’s scenario was an example of the immediate benefits of curation to a user, which don’t have many social implications at all. However, Ted’s scenario was one example of how the curation of one’s news feed can introduce much broader issues, especially with such a controversial topic such as medical vaccinations. While beneficial, the curation of content enables a user to see only what they want to see. And when advocating to be either for or against something, a curated news feed might just help to feed the fire.

While I listened to the podcast, Jack Dorsey mentioned the following factoid about Twitter that I found to be really interesting: the amount of journalists on the left who were following users on the right-end of the spectrum was much smaller than the amount of journalists on the right who were following users on the left-end of the spectrum. This is a great example of just how much of the ideas of social identity run rampant in today’s politics, which might also be referred to as “Identity Politics“.  

As I’ve previously mentioned, social identity is indeed a timeless issue. I can imagine that the “us” and “them” mentality will continue to be around long after my time is done on this earth. While many social media platforms might allow for a more efficient means to information, I truly believe that many areas of the technology are continuously exploited (i.e. the curation of a Twitter news feed). While the theory of social identity is not anything new, I do believe that the exploitation of technology has caused the effects of social identity to amplify to the point of causing even more of a divide between “us” and “them”.

Where can we go from here?

Transparency and receptiveness seem to be a growing concern for more and more consumers. And it seems more companies are willing to lean towards those directions; whether it be out of their own accord, or having been pressured to do so. While social technology has proven beneficial, the average user is beginning to understand the limitations and downsides of some functionalities.

With the likes of Twitter, I believe that [Twitter] should strive to be more of what it essentially is: a medium for having a public conversation. A conversational approach, as opposed to a one-sided argument allows for a much clearer picture. While there might still be an us and them in the end, conversations really help to introduce the middle ground.

Curating content definitely has it’s uses, but it’s important to consider viewpoints outside of our own. As these technology companies continue to evolve and work to finding solutions to these issues, we must do what we can to ensure we’re seeing the bigger picture ourselves. “Following” the Twitter accounts of those we normally would not does not automatically mean we support their ideas. If anything, it can make certain that we are providing well-thought out, and rational answers to the correct questions. And of course, that idea can be applied to more than just social media platforms.

This is as much as a reminder to myself, as it might act as a reminder to anyone who might be reading. If not yet already, let’s begin to have these conversations, conduct our own research (using credible sources), and really listen to what others are saying.

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