I just ‘liked’ a friend’s witty Facebook status message. A few entries below was a status message from another friend, which I found revolting. But I had no option to ‘dislike’ it. And I didn’t express my thoughts as a comment either. Considering that this was the latest of many such status messages from him, I decided to ‘hide’ all his posts.
We do this all the time. We ‘unfollow’ people on Twitter when they say things that don’t appeal to us. We stop reading blogs and newspapers if they don’t conform to our world view. We insulate ourselves from anything that doesn’t reinforce our opinions, our ideologies, our beliefs.
Online algorithms egg us on. Amazon keeps telling me which books I will possibly like based on the ones I’ve already ordered from there. Ditto Netflix and movies. Groupon sells me online coupons. Expedia suggests holidays. If I like something, I am told I can get more things that I will like more.
Back in 1995, the MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte anticipated the customized newspaper tailored to individual tastes (what is basically your Facebook or Twitter stream today) with the term Daily Me.
He argued that we will be faced with options that lead to a uni-directional positive feedback, resulting in our choices affecting our mindset forever. Others like David Weinberger referred to this as the echo chamber – “internet spaces where like-minded people listen only to those people who already agree with them.”
Two years ago, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof observed:
The decline of traditional news media will accelerate the rise of The Daily Me, and we’ll be irritated less by what we read and find our wisdom confirmed more often. The danger is that this self-selected “news” acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor through which we will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.
Not only do we strongly agree with things we conform to, but also tend to strongly disagree with those on the other side. As a reader of many Indian websites and blogs, I am genuinely appalled at the virulence that is unleashed, one that preempts any attempt at a mature debate.
Observe the comments section of many strongly-opinionated pieces and you’re likely to see responses that are either triumphalist or venomous. Considering that the latter group often targets the writer’s nationality, religion or race, the group that agrees with the piece is prompted to outrage against the outrage. There’s no shortage of anger.
Forget political pieces, even articles on something as apparently trivial as cricket descend into Hindus-Muslim rants. Or ones where North Indians and South Indians abuse each other. Strangely, the same group of North Indians and South Indians will combine as a united front and spew venom at a a western writer if he were to criticize something related to cricket in India. And western readers don’t miss a chance to give it back when the moment arises.
How can we stop this apparently vicious positive reinforcement cycle? One of India’s finest historians, Ramachandra Guha, once said he makes it a point to regularly read magazines and writers who he disagrees with. Kristof urges us to “struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore.”
The next time you want to unfollow someone on Twitter or hide someone’s status messages on Facebook, think about whether you’re depriving yourself of some good workout time.
Many of us often finish several conversations with the cliched ‘let’s agree to disagree’ but maybe the way ahead is to start some conversations with the more interesting, “Let’s disagree to agree”.
Over to you.