Sunday, March 24, 2019

You, Me and This Space Between Us

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

This is a story about why it is getting so hard to talk with each other. It’s an incomplete story of our media broadcast systems and why nearly everything seems contentious. It is a difficult topic for me to write about and may not be an easy topic to grasp. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere because we need to understand this vast media ecosystem out here in cyber-space. Our preservation as a society depends on it. Keep in mind this is a basic account from a social worker perspective. It doesn’t include the multiple ways bad actors are manipulating our media systems for their own ends, or many other aspects.

Social media platforms, such as those at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, use sophisticated computer algorithms (complex mathematical formulas) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help manage and curate our internet experiences. Every time we engage with a social media platform we are silently consigned to marketing segments based on patterns created by our past internet activities. Every login, every search, every keystroke we make on the internet is personal data that is collected, stored and used to strengthen our emotional connections to their platform. This information gets stored in massive databases and is then analyzed using AI, a robotic intelligence, to identify how our user profiles differ from or are similar to, other people’s profiles.

On this basis we are placed in electronic silos and targeted by computer algorithms to receive the media content, messaging and advertising most likely to interest us and keep us engaged with these corporate media platforms. It is, after all, our presence and engagement on these platforms that is the product which media companies are selling to make a profit. We are their product.

This is a very profitable business model and it is in use across all media platforms, but the evidence is abundantly accumulating that this business model has unintended consequences for society. By design, these platforms increase our daily exposure to like-minded beliefs, a narrower band of information sources, and mono-cultural opinions. It surrounds us in a self-referential media cloud that discretely alters our perceptions and narrows are worldviews.

At the same time, it isolates us from a medial range of social beliefs, fact patterns and consensus opinions as a whole. We lose the comparative perspective of our place in society at large. We start to either over or underestimate our sense of being in the norm. And when we do engage with others of differing views, their perspectives seem alien and out of touch.

This increasingly common phenomenon is evidence of the social silos we occupy in a cyber world. It amounts to electronically generated barriers, no less potent in their impact than was geography, topography, and distance in the past. Those barriers, only recently breached, ultimately resulted in different races, languages, and cultures. Our electronic silos are capable of similar cultural evolution. Our common cultural underpinnings are already beginning to diverge. The perceptual difference being generated by our media universe are amplifying old social differences that previously existed with far less contrast. These growing differences are increasing the feelings of alienation and suspicion between different social groups. Moreover, the emotional triggering techniques that are used to increase our level of engagement with social media content have the effect of heightening our fears and suspicions towards others who appear to have polar opposite views. It is obvious that we are reaching the point where we can't rationally talk to each other.

The overall impact of our new media environment is that it is beginning to dissolve our underlying social cohesion. Our worldview is narrowing. Our patience with each other, our civility, and rationality in public discourse are declining. Our preferences and prejudices are being reinforced, fortified by this highly curated media content robotically presented to us based upon our ever-refined personal profiles.

How long before we don't recognize our national culture anymore? How long before we become democratically ungovernable? We have to open our eyes to the unintended consequences of this new and global media universe. We need to have this conversation.


Here is a link to a prior article on how Netflix is influencing culture:


  1. Comments and corrections/clarifications welcome.

  2. Now this article from the N.Y. Times....

  3. We are their product. Indeed we are.


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