Social Media: Vicious Circles or Virtuous Circles?

Economists like to talk about “virtuous circles” and also their opposite, “vicious circles.” The Wikipedia editors do a fine job of succinctly defining these phenomena:

They refer to a complex of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop. A virtuous circle has favorable results, while a vicious circle has detrimental results. A virtuous circle can transform into a vicious circle if eventual negative feedback is ignored.

A classic example of a virtuous circle, sometimes called a virtuous cycle, is economic growth, which goes something like this. Technological innovation leads to greater productivity, which leads to lower production costs, which leads to lower prices for goods and services, which allows consumers to buy more good and services, which makes them feel prosperous, which leads them to spend more, which stimulates demand for more goods and services, which generates corporate profits, which can be used to fund research and development, which leads to more technological innovation. The upward spiral of inflation is often described as vicious circle.

Illustration of a Virtuous Circle

A Virtuous Circle.

My recent experiences in social media have me trying to figure out which of these paradigms fits a circle of, say, your Facebook friends.  In my last post, on Rush Limbaugh’s rough week, I considered the nearly unanimous negative opinions among my Facebook friends about Limbaugh and contrasted this agreement with the rough-and-tumble of certain Twitter streams where sound-offers like the guy I call Jerry Nutso vent their rage.

More evidence to consider comes from a Washington Post article by Marc Fisher that appeared before the Republican primary in South Carolina, in January. Fisher’s piece featured a voter named Dianne Belsom who:

…wakes in her splendidly restored pink Victorian on Main Street in this rural South Carolina town, makes coffee and settles in at her desktop to fire up Facebook. There on her news feed are more than 100 stories that some of her 460 friends have posted since Belsom went to bed eight hours ago.

Over the next three hours, Belsom bops around the Web checking out the latest campaign news. Her sources are big and small, from nearby Greenville to faraway California, but they have one thing in common: With rare exceptions, the news and commentary sites Belsom visits share her worldview, which she describes as “conservative, tea party, Christian.”

Fisher then tell us what the experts have to say about this situation:

…it’s clear to campaign strategists and voters alike that the revolution in how Americans get their news has dramatically altered the political process. There’s more campaign news and commentary out there than ever before, but more and more citizens are tucking themselves inside information silos where they see mainly what they already agree with. The result, according to voters, campaign strategists and a raft of studies that track users’ news choice, is an electorate in which conservatives and liberals often have not only their own opinions but also their own sets of facts, making it harder than ever to approach common ground.

The electorate, in short, is much informed, but not well or widely informed. The term for this, Fischer says, is “selective exposure,” a.k.a,”cyberbalkanization,” and clearly the experts think this is bad for democracy. Much commentary about the Web sees it as a universe of self-reinforcing enclaves that only serves to perpetuate the crazed, conspiratorial, and often paranoid extremes in American public life. One of the earliest to pitch this view was the legal scholar Cass Sunstein in his 2001 book Republic.com . Sunstein, who now works in the Obama White House, coined the term “cybercascades” for the like-minded opinions that foster and enflame hate groups

I’d like to offer a counterview, based on my own experiences in social media. First, Facebook and Twitter are two different countries. In Facebook you choose whom to friend. This makes Facebook similar to a small village, a place where people tend to know each other. As in a village, people expect to have many future interactions with each other, so they try to be on their best behavior. Few want to look like a jerk in their own neighborhood.

So, in Facebook, your remarks have consequences – if only to build up or tear down your reputation.  I think this Sunday-best behavior norm is why so much Facebook chat runs to bland, trivial good cheer.  I don’t mean to sound scornful about that; the world can always use a net increase in its store of good cheer.

It is also true that in selecting your friends in Facebook, you’ll be choosing those whom you find simpatico. That often means those with whom you agree about politics, religion, books, music, movies, and sports teams to root for. Everybody gets their own herd of independent minds as Facebook friends.

Photo of Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh playing defense.

I don’t find this comfy homogeneity in Facebook a bad thing for the future of our republic. So my Facebook friends agree they don’t like Rush Limbaugh, or if they do, they don’t want to stir up my comment chain and make a fuss. OK. I can live with that. I like debates, but isn’t this reluctance to enter debate and ruffle the aura of good cheer a form of civility?

Twitter is also a place where you make choices: you decide whom to follow and you can block people from following you. But there are spots in Twitter, particularly the hash tag streams, where everybody with an interest in a given topic – say, #boycottrush – can gather to sound off. These are the unregulated rivers of the Internet, funneling both passion and sewage. I think of them as a sort of vast public crossroads where, like the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, you might encounter the devil.

The distinction from Facebook is that those you stumble upon in these Twitter streams are often strangers, and I’ve learned there is a crowd at these crossroads that enjoys the insult wars. The drive-by quality of these encounters – the relative anonymity – makes it easy for some to throw rocks at those who are not their friends, neighbors, or fellow villagers. A little of this name-calling goes a long way for me, and I don’t spend much time in these anarchical precincts.

My personal rules for social media are like those I use for the highway. First, don’t get into it with anyone because in a road-rage incident, you never know how crazy the guy you’re tangling with is or if he’s carrying a gun. Of course, despite my best intentions, I am sometimes unable to resist being sucked into the verbal jousting of Twitter hash tags. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine.

One final thought about social media as a vehicle for reasoned debate: not gonna happen. There’s no way you’re going to convince anybody of anything in Facebook or Twitter or even at the dinner table. The brilliance of your arguments and all your mot-juste-ing will just bounce off those who disagree with you. There are a lot of complex reasons for this, but I’ll save that speculation for a future post.

photo of Tottenham soccer fans

Tottenham Hotspur supporters.

It’s best to think of your partisan opinions in social media as akin to those of a British soccer fan when he visits the stadium of an archrival club. Stating political opinions in Facebook or Twitter is like supporters of the Arsenal Gunners lined up outside White Hart Lane, the home pitch of the Tottenham Hot Spurs, chanting songs and insults before a big match. Social media is all about affirming your tribal identity, which is also kind of fun.

It’s a close call, but on balance social media looks like more of a harmless, perhaps slightly virtuous circle than a vicious one to me.

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