“Awesome,” you must be thinking, sarcastically, “yet another broad, reductive, condescending generalization about millennials with some lazy clickbait title dreamed up by a wannabe Upworthy editor.” And I would say to you that you’re probably right, but your cynicism, which sprung from the fact that you’d supposedly seen this kind of piece before, literally proves my point.
We live in the era of the discreet personalization of the internet, something not a lot of humans I’ve talked to are aware of, much less fully informed about. In a nutshell, the internet is slowly but surely figuring you out and tailoring itself to your tastes. If, say, you’re a liberal, and you click on left-leaning links, Google will recognize this, and over time, right-leaning sites will be filtered out of your search results. Google does this to make the web experience easier and more agreeable for you, and heck, you might even enjoy it. It’s really nice to have people agree with you.
But it’s making you an asshole.
Here’s why. The internet, upon its invention and mass adoption, was hailed by idealists as a great uniting force, something that could connect rural Kansas with metropolitan Shanghai. No longer would we live in an insular bubble, incapable of feeling empathy for those whose experiences we had no way of relating to. But, as we idealists should have foreseen, the internet has not lived up to those lofty expectations. It’s become an extension of our flawed society.
We’ve taken cliques and other exclusionary techniques and moved them online. Facebook rose to prominence on the premise of exclusivity, promising the ability to snub those we didn’t want to deal with. By buying into that, by making that a priority value, we’ve romanticized cliquishness. And now, with personalization becoming more and more prevalent all across the web, as it is on Google, it’s like we’re all in Mean Girls, and almost everyone’s become Regina George. “You can’t sit with us” is practically our cultural motto.
You might argue–what’s so wrong with that? Now we can find communities that agree with us, with far more ease than ever before. Many minority subgroups have found acceptance online that they’ve been unable to find before in the real world. That’s awesome, right? Well… for the most part. There are some notable and important exceptions, like the MRA movement, which bred (and continues to breed) certified misogynistic killers like the UCSB shooter and the movement behind #Gamergate, a thoroughly chauvinist crusade that wishes to remove females from gaming culture and succeeded in preventing noted feminist and gamer Anita Sarkeesian from giving a lecture by making a terrifyingly plausible terrorist threat. Despite those outliers, however, minority communities that do no harm vastly outnumber those that do, and those communities breed acceptance… of their own kind.
And therein lies the problem.
When we choose our preferred point of view, our scope becomes limited. We become complicit in a cultural circle jerk that only validates our opinions, never challenging them. As a result, we develop resentment toward those who disagree with us and instead of becoming more open we become closed off. So while minority communities may find acceptance within their bubble, due to the sheltered nature of everyone’s experience, the majority will become even more closed off to the experiences of the minorities and vice-versa, leading to an even greater cultural chasm than there already is.
And it’s not just the minorities you’re thinking about that are ostracized, either. In addition to the usual rich/poor, racial, gendered, and typical/atypical sexuality divides, there’s also an introvert/extrovert divide, a socially awkward/socially capable divide, a smart/not-so-smart divide and even an attractive/unattractive divide.
Facebook shows us things it thinks we’ll like more often. I’ve stopped seeing posts by my Republican friends, because I’m not as apt to like them as I am posts by my Democrat friends. The more we personalize our taste, the more we exclude other points of view, the more entrenched we become in our own beliefs, and the less empathetic we become.
Worse, we’re losing our individuality. There’s an old joke about emo kids–they establish themselves as a unique individual by dressing like everyone else–and that’s exactly what’s happening here. Our beliefs are becoming homogenized, fitting in with the groups and ideologies we ‘choose’ to align with, and we have less individual agency to truly decide for ourselves what we believe in.
But what about freedom of choice? Shouldn’t we be allowed to choose what we want to see? Of course. But you’re not really choosing what you want to see. Algorithms dreamed up by Google and Facebook are choosing for you—hence why you’re seeing yet another article with a clickbait-y title. Even if you hate the overwhelming sensation of underwhelm you feel after getting tricked into clicking on one–you clicked on it. And now, as a result, Google and Facebook will place similar articles in your line of sight, and remove the kinds of articles you didn’t click on, which might have a boring title, but contain necessary information.
Facebook even personalizes the ‘trending topics’ that you see. Your viewing habits are determining what things Facebook tells you are popular, both reinforcing your taste in news and diluting it down to what you specifically find particularly interesting.
The scariest thing about that, though, is that people seem to be joining Facebook earlier and earlier. While the official age required to join the site is 13, many kids lie about their birthdays to get a head start on the social networking site in a world in which online social networking is so crucial to in-person social well being, especially in the legalized shark tank that is middle school. What’s the connection? The links that one may click on at age 13 could determine the links one sees at age 18 and beyond. You might mature, but your newsfeed will always contain traces of the child you once were. That might sound awfully nostalgic and sweet, but in reality, it could leave us mentally stifled, cursed to bathe in the sins of our youth for an indefinite length of time. Facebook’s CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg has even come out publicly on the side of removing the age limit, paving the way for even younger generations to corrupt their future consumption of information.
In addition, Facebook personalizes advertisements based on that data, and other bits of knowledge you’ve unwittingly given the site. While this might remove unwanted tampon ads from a male user’s feed, it is a bit scary to be so invaded by corporate interests, and quite a bit annoying when those personalized [your name here] t-shirt ads eat space on your timeline.
All that said, I’m not a philistine. The solution isn’t to log off and burn all the computers down. It’s awareness. It’s knowing that these companies are trying to limit what you see, and fighting against it–whether it be by asking those companies to change their policies, or remaining vigilant and seeking out other points of view, both online and in real life. Yes, right now, we’re assholes. But that’s today. Tomorrow, perhaps, with some depersonalization and self-awareness, we could be mere asshats.