Social Progress in the Digital Age: Why it’s time to step away from social media

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Photo credit: TaylorHerring via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Confined to the cosy bubbles of our online worlds, it can be difficult to understand when elections and referendums fail to deliver the results that we expect. When Brexit was announced I, like everyone I know, was shocked by the result, not only because leaving the EU wasn’t the result that I had personally called for, but because I didn’t know anyone who had voted to leave. Likewise, whilst I was aware in the lead up to this year’s general election that there remained across the country a great deal of support for the Conservatives, at no point did I consider that a Tory/DUP coalition was a possible outcome. What I hadn’t considered up until recently is how sheltered from reality I’ve been.

When I first joined Facebook many moons ago, there was no such thing as a news feed algorithm. It used to be the case that I would come across all kinds of posts in my daily feed. Some were interesting and instantly engaging, some boring, and some downright offensive. Regardless of whether or not the content was relevant or interesting to me personally, it was very likely that I would see whatever my friends and acquaintances were sharing. These days it can take days for the annoying YouTube video that someone posted at the weekend to appear in my news feed. And in some cases content remains completely hidden.

In a way this is pretty clever and useful. It means that when I scroll through Facebook I’m more often than not presented with news items and features that are of interest to me and that I’m likely to engage with in a meaningful way. But when it comes to the way that we engage with politics and current affairs, is it really that helpful for information to be restricted?

These days it’s extremely rare that I come across any content which opposes my personal belief system. What I find disconcerting is that if I’m receiving very little in the way of opposing viewpoints, then the same goes for those who think and feel differently from me. Whilst it’s easy to feel as though our social media algorithms are working in our favour to protect us from annoying/anger-inducing bullshit, I can’t help wondering if restricting information that is assumed to not be useful to us also hinders the way that we’re able to engage with and learn from our fellow citizens.

When it comes to the way that we engage with politics and current affairs, is it really that helpful for information to be restricted?

With more and more people turning to social media to access news and opinion, and with so much unreliable information floating around, it’s a shame that only certain types of stories are reaching certain individuals. If the only articles that we’re immediately presented with in our social media feeds sit cosily within our existing interests and beliefs, then how are we meant to connect with ‘the other side’ so to speak, and find a common ground from which to tackle the issues that are keeping us divided?

In a country characterised by polemic view points and a biased media system hell bent on fuelling the fire, it’s important that we make an effort to connect with one another and try to understand the other side of the proverbial coin. Rather than dedicating so much time and energy to voicing our opinions on social media, where only like-minded individuals are likely to gain exposure, perhaps it’s time to step away from our screens and start talking to one another in the real world.

Social progress depends upon how well we connect with and understand the people around us, and social media no longer offers a platform for this kind of engagement. So, speak with your neighbours, start conversations on the bus and in the street, and remember that we can be far more united and connected in the offline world than social networks and their algorithms will ever allow for.

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Maddie is a Bristol-based writer and blogger with a particular interest in feminism, social justice and contemporary culture.