Gotten into an argument on Facebook lately? You're not alone. Find yourself nodding violently in agreement with something someone posted?
Even more common.
We find ourselves in an environment where everyone seems to be acting like an "activist" for the views they find themselves aligning with. The rub? It's not easy being a good activist. The worst ones tend to alienate others because they become so deafening, vociferous and one dimensional in service of their cause—they become difficult to relate to. The best ones are able to mobilize those who share their views while building bridges to those who don't. But many of us are mistaking being engaged for taking action or skipping taking action all together and leveraging social media as a form of activism. These things are not the same and build off one another.
Awareness In Today's Filter Bubble
One of the most impactful societal measures of social networks is that they've become our go to sources of information, news, opinions, and an ever stream of feedback based on what's happening in our world. However, as the recent U.S. election underscored—networks are flawed by design in that we often surround ourselves with peer groups "like us" which creates a phenomena that's been labeled "filter bubbles". Our awareness is filtered by our often likeminded peers—and so a steady stream of content and feedback loops that are reflective of our own bias reinforces the way we see things.
Engagement vs. Action
Another side-effect of social media is that it tricks our brains into thinking being engaged is actually taking a tangible action.
It is not.
I was recently reminded of this when I read a story about a mosque burning down not long after the Trump administration has signed executive orders to pause immigration from select countries. My first inclination was to "react" to the story and then share it with my peers to raise awareness. I stopped myself however because I realized that although I was engaging around an event that troubled me—I wasn't taking any tangible action to change the outcome of the event. I stopped myself and made a donation to the Go Fund Me page associated with the story. Only after that did I share the story and encourage others to take similar action. Engagement is desirable and on social media—likes, comments, shares are all forms of engagement but they are not outcome altering actions and many of us have confused engagement for action.
The Risks and Rewards of Social Media Activism
Social networks have empowered us to in some ways mimic the dynamics of activism. It gives us a street corner, a megaphone and even a soap box to stand on so our friends, business contacts and peers know exactly what we stand for. And like the crowds who pass the activist and megaphone—some if not many will engage, after all most of us share the same filter bubbles. But for how long? After passing the activist on the street corner, when we just want to get home after a long days work—we begin to tune out the words no matter how sincere or earnest. With the megaphone and empowerment to become an "activist" for our beliefs and values comes the burden of alienation—there will be times when people just won't want to engage, no matter what their stance on an issue.
What's happening to our social newsfeeds? They've become a reflection of what we've curated over time. In some cases, they are a daily validation mechanism for ourselves and like minded peers. In other cases—they foster dialogue and debate. But they aren't a substitute for taking meaningful action even if a like, share or comment satisfies our urge in the moment.
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