A lovely neighbour of ours sent me a link to a documentary about conspiracy theorists in New Zealand. It explores how social media has exacerbated our differences and stoked hatred, the worst of which spilled over into real-world violence outside Parliament earlier this year. She found it so disturbing that she could only watch eight minutes of it (mind you, she doesn't watch the news for the same reason). But she thought more people should know about it and asked me to share it as she doesn’t use Facebook.
I don’t blame her. I use social media less and less. It upsets me how it has displaced real, curated content online. Facebook and co want posts that engage (facts don’t matter), and the algorithms reward arguments and hatred. Social media isn’t building community anymore. It is dividing it. We preach to the converted in our bubbles and attack anyone who doesn’t agree, driving them off to their bubbles, or off the platform entirely. It happened to neighbours who didn’t want to be vaccinated. They left Lyttelton's Facebook group: end of conversation.
How do we break out of our bubbles and prevent social media destroying our online and off-line communities?
I was given that opportunity last Friday when I went to see my physio (for reasons of age catching up with too much time sitting at a computer/drawing table). At the end of the session, she often leaves me with pins sticking in my neck and shoulders as she starts up her next patient. A couple of curtains separate us.
The patients are usually Lyttelton locals like me, who have similar views about the world. Often the chat is about the aches and pains, but sometimes it becomes more interesting. Nearly always those fellow patients are in my bubble—left-leaning, environmentally concerned...you know the type—rational and decent people (so we think). But this time, the patient on the other side of the curtains was from a very different bubble and the conversation became very interesting. He was talking about all the flying he did for business and what a relief it would be when they got their new private jet. And not only that—it would be a tax writeoff. (Yes, even in clean, green, New Zealand: governments the world over are subsidising the burning of fossil fuels).
I might have stayed silent if I hadn’t been thinking about how we don’t have conversations with people who think differently to us anymore. So I asked him if he was going to be offsetting the emissions of that private jet. And he laughed at how preposterous emission offsets are. He’s right. Better not to generate them in the first place. I didn’t say that. I kept quiet. He kept talking to the physio, but then he might have thought about how he could reach out to someone in a different bubble.
He began to talk about some work his company is doing making hydrogen out of waste plastic. An interesting idea. He asked me whether I would like to talk about that sometime over coffee.
What the hell. I agreed and we are meeting tomorrow at the Lyttelton Coffee Company.
Because bubble bursting has to start somewhere.
PS. I’d love to hear your ideas on how people on different sides can get talking to each other again.
PPS. Molly doesn’t believe in bubbles. They are ephemeral, unlike sticks, balls, fluffy dogs and dastardly cats.