Last week I was having a discussion with my friend and fellow VM blogger Laura. I mentioned how I had become quite disillusioned with using Twitter, because I felt like I was just hearing the same topics and discussions over and over again. People, especially in the nonprofit sector, have been hot to tout Twitter as this wonderful tool for spreading your message and connecting with people, but the thing that I soon felt was that after listening and interacting for a while, it was very difficult for me to find any new ideas. And if you are not creating new ideas, then the point of all this interaction becomes self-validation, which can foster not so great things like a false sense of effectiveness, complacency, and at worst, tunnel vision and a decrease in openness to new ideas . Now, don’t get me wrong, validation that you are doing good work and that you are saying something people want to hear can be a good thing, but if you don’t actively seek out other opinions, then it is very easy to become stagnant.
A few days after this conversation, Laura sent me a talk by Ethan Zuckerman on TED.com called “Listening to Global Voices.” This talk addressed exactly these concepts, albeit far more eloquently and statistically than I had been able to do.
I highly recommend that you watch the talk (it’s about 20 minutes long). The main point that Zuckerman tries to get across is that what happens on social networks is what happens in real life- “you interact with people that you’ve chosen to interact with.” What this usually means, is that you end up talking with people who have similar interests, which usually means that they hold similar values, come from similar backgrounds, and probably look kind of like you too. Zuckerman calls this “gaining the wisdom of the flock,” and it’s a very easy pattern to fall into, one that I’m sure everyone has noticed at some point.
Zuckerman points out that when the internet was first created, it was predicted to be a great equalizing force, giving everyone a chance to make their voices heard. Instead, what has happened is much of the information in English is focused on the United States and a small part of Western Europe. Basically, we as an internet audience focus on learning more and more about ourselves. One statistic that particularly unnerved me was that in the 1970s, 35 percent of news broadcast in the United States addressed international topics. In the 2000s, that number has shrunk to just 12 percent of news. In our supposedly increasingly connected and global world, that number is shocking.
I don’t really understand why this is. It seems like a lot of people (including myself) say that they want to reach across divides and connect with people who hold different values, without actually knowing the best way to do that effectively. Zuckerman ends his talk by challenging people to figure out not just how to do this for themselves, but how to make the platforms that we use for information gathering more conducive to effective information sharing. “It’s not enough to make a personal decision that you want a wider world. We have to figure out how to re-wire the system that we have.”
So what are ways that we can do this? I’d love to know your ideas 🙂