In economics, bubbles can be dangerous. If a stock or sector of the market gets too buzzy, the whole market can become unstable and susceptible to crash. Are we seeing a similar effect culturally?
Social media, by design, is a closed system. Facebook is positioned as a portal through which all relevant content can be delivered at a user’s pleasure. The issue at hand has more to do with Facebook’s business model than their pursuit of the most immersive user experience.
To drive consumption, and thus ad opportunities, algorithms are set to prioritize the content a user is most likely to engage with. Much like stock market bubbles, this constant algorithmic reinforcement can become an issue as it scales. As we’ve seen during this past election cycle, when the content is partisan in nature or inflammatory by design, the potential for it to go viral increases. Within the echo chamber that results, users of a like mind can quickly rally around or cement opinions on ideas, regardless of sourcing, due to the implied legitimacy of their social network and the prevalence of exposure.
While the election is a unique example of this phenomenon, there is reason to wonder what effect these social media bubbles will have in the long-term. Are we headed to a “crash” in civil discourse due to the combined effect of a platform for expressing personal views seemingly reinforced by one-sided content?
It’s my opinion that Facebook bears some ethical responsibility to manage their business incentives so that they aren’t sacrificing the very foundation for open discussion at the core of their value proposition. While it’s not Facebook’s place to tell users what content is valid, it can do a better job at policing (or at minimum labeling) blatantly misleading content. One idea might be for some form of “blue check mark” for verified news sources like what Twitter uses to designate verified accounts.
Whereas the stock market recovers in time from periods of high volatility, that same volatility acts as an accelerant in social media. While mainly peaceful, the protests that followed the election (and likely would have followed either candidate’s victory by the loser’s supporters) serve an example of what happens when that social bubble pops. Time will tell if discussion returns to “normal” or if the events of the next four years continue to fuel new bubbles.