I’m always willing to listen to people who can predict the future. One example I often use with respect to digital media is Cass Sundstein’s 2001 article “The Daily We,” in which he predicted that the Internet would ultimately lead to increased fragmentation and polarization in American public life. Much of what he predicted in 2001 is playing out in the current U.S. presidential race, particularly among Republicans, where we see an unprecedented number of candidates who continue to stay in the race despite single-digit poll numbers.
One reason may be that social media is giving candidates and their supporters an unrealistically optimistic perception of their own chances of success, resulting in the current persistent fragmentation. The reasons behind this trend also have important implications for using digital tools for business.
Content Filtering and News Feeds
To be sure, a number of factors have led to the current fragmented political environment, but Sundstein predicted that a single digital feature would result in this outcome — a user’s ability to filter digital content. When social media tools provide the ability to find the content we most want to read, we are most likely to search out content that confirms our existing views. Algorithmic search tools like Facebook’s newsfeed exacerbates this tendency by automatically recognizing which content we have sought out in the past and then showing users other content that is most like that which we have previously viewed. We no longer need to seek out the content that confirms our own views — Facebook finds it for us. As a result, we rarely engage with content that represents viewpoints different from our own.
The same characteristic also extends to those with whom we connect using social media tools. The Internet provides a nearly limitless ability to connect with almost anyone online, and research has long shown that the types of “weak ties” we establish on these platforms can be very valuable for finding information.