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Perspectives | Issue 6

Navigator’s folio of ideas, insights and new ways of thinking

The Vice of Virtual Realities

January 1, 2017

Touted for building community and consensus, social media contributes equally to fragmentation and isolation

“Books are beginning to read people in a more careful way than people read books.”

Social media exaggerates our differences. It lets us indulge in eclectic interests we would otherwise keep private. But online, nothing is quite private. Social networks assign our personal profiles to virtual identities. The collection of these virtual identities forms the foundation for every social network. Each identity leaves a footprint. Each footprint tells a story of who we are. Each story helps social networks provide a news feed tailored to our individual interests. Each individual feed is a silo of information. Each silo displays a fragmented view of society.

This increased fragmentation has implications for how we communicate online. When we communicate via a digital screen, we get information without context. Offline, we rely on our senses and memories to contextualize interactions. Online, our user profiles perform a similar action—providing social networks with context. By staying logged in, we build a record of our interactions much like memories do offline. With memories always a quick search away, this means forgettable memories become unforgettable. And that’s not always a good thing—some memories should stay forgotten. Today, we walk around with a big sign above our heads. That sign tells everyone where our hometown is, what interests we have, what we like, and what we share. By relying on social data alone, we see people by the fragments they leave behind.
Today’s social platforms encourage people to celebrate their individuality. Each piece of data we provide or leave behind brings our individual fragments to the surface. By providing this data, we can coalesce in communities around our own specific interests. Social media socializes our fragments. But because we are not alone, it can also heighten apathy.And that can have profound implications for how we communicate and engage people online.

Of course, digital technology helps us reach a mass of people with hyper-targeted content. We can present information with phenomenal detail, at the individual level. To do so, we rely on massive data, which will inevitably fragment any sample. But it also makes it possible to distill a complex message in a way that motivates people to take action. And that’s why the most successful campaigns involve a digitally focused team at the outset. In these campaigns, digital isn’t a question of “if,” but “how.”

The questions digital teams ask address how we take advantage of the incredibly specific targeting options, how we leverage online communities, and how we inspire people to act on their personal preferences.

To run a successful campaign is to run a successful digital campaign. The best campaigns use the fragmented nature of the Internet to inspire individual action for a common cause. Yes, digital campaigns stress our differences. But they also let us use our shared individual interests to connect. In truth, our differences were always there. Now we can speak to them, rather than ignore them. In so doing, we can engender more passion than any broad message could. And with just the right amount of passion, we can engender action.

With shared experiences occurring on data platforms, we’re becoming characters in a book. As the communications scholar Harari writes, “books are starting to read people.” Social media “reads” us. It provides a platform for individual expression and uses our choices to serve us new content. It uses our browsing habits to display related material, wrapping us in a comfortable cocoon. From the outside, we appear fragmented by our individual cocoons. But in reality, we are far from isolated. We’re part of a broader story. Indeed, if today’s “books” are starting to read people, public affairs practitioners need to read these books.

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