Francisco Dao is the founder of 50Kings, a private community for technology and media innovators. He is a former leadership columnist for Inc.com, a lifelong entrepreneur, author and former stand-up comic.
Most people view the social web as a tool for bringing people together and sharing ideas, but they fail to see how these same community-building attributes can fuel dangerous thought bubbles and lead us down paths to extremism.
The Web allows us to connect with people we probably wouldn’t be able to find offline by providing a forum for everyone. This is a positive trait in most cases, and advocates argue that this promotes greater collaboration and facilitates the sharing of ideas. But it has a darker side in that it can lead us down deep rabbit holes of thought by making small groups appear larger and more influential than they really are.
Imagine a fanatical White supremacist. As a percentage of the general population, like-minded people are a small minority. In the real world, this would make it virtually impossible for this person to find others who share his views. But the Web is a different story, since it gives a small group of people powerful tools with which to organize. Proportionally, this population is minuscule. But, for racists in search of support, the Web can help reinforce their ideas, leading an otherwise alienated individual to think that he or she has the support of the masses.
Research shows that it is natural human behavior to seek approval for what we believe. Dr. Carol Tavris author of Mistakes Were Made but Not By Me describes decisions as being made at the top of a pyramid. Two people can begin with very similar beliefs but once they decide one way or the other — for example two moderates, one choosing Republican, the other Democrat — they self identify and start sliding down the sides of the pyramid, drifting further and further apart. This behavioral trait is built into all of us and makes true impartiality impossible.
Contrary to the open, collaborative world envisioned by Internet utopians, the social Web has instead mirrored our behavioral characteristics by pushing us into virtual villages. This is most apparent in how Facebook sorts our friends and decides what to show in our news feeds, or in Google’s personal search results. Instead of showing us everything and letting us decide, Facebook and Google show us what they think we want to see, essentially placing us into bubbles of reinforced beliefs.
Nowhere is this type of group magnification more prevalent than with the people building the platform on which it exists: Internet entrepreneurs.
Unlike other industries that rely on old distribution models to spread their message, much of the Internet community is focused on building social media tools that are largely based on self promotion. Share your location, what you’re eating, what you’re buying, who you’re with and, of course, share what you’re reading. It’s the equivalent of TV producers making reality shows about the lives of their friends.
Essentially, the social Web has become its own biggest advocate and, unsurprisingly, the entrepreneurs and their associates are its first adopters and the most adept at using it. The end result is a largely insular world of technology entrepreneurs using social media to reinforce each others’ beliefs in a virtual echo chamber that produces clone after clone of like “blank”-for-“blank”-style companies instead of breaking new ground. It looks like a great club to be a part of from the outside looking in — a place where everyone seems to be the most popular kid in school. But this has resulted in a disproportionate amount of attention given to this segment of technology.
Internet entrepreneurs have been given a blank slate to build a world that could only be imagined 20 years ago — a virtual world that will have great influence on the direction of the real world. They can choose to be the architects of skyscrapers or the builders of copycat tract homes. Tract homes serve their purpose well, but as Steve Jobs put it, they don’t leave a “dent in the universe.”
I implore Internet innovators to get out of the echo chamber. Don’t read the same books your friends read, seek out people who inhabit different spheres, stop believing what industry publications write about you, and explore the real world like Hemingway, Twain and Jobs. Build a virtual skyscraper. The alternative is to slide deeper and deeper into a bigger bubble of small ideas.