Is Social Media an Intellectual Tar Pit?

Does the public reach of social media make us more inflexible?

There is understandably a great deal of discussion going ’round about the polarizing effects of social media. Some believe that the technology employed by the social media giants to categorize users is actually engaged in nudging people toward ever more extreme points of view.  I actually do think this is happening because it improves social media’s ability to monetize its users. But lately I’ve started wondering if it’s also the case that the very fact of users having a public platform at all which is contributing to making people less open to alternative points of view.

It seems to be an essential attribute of human existence that there is a very real anchoring effect that follows after making public statements of belief, or public confessions of failure. By “anchoring effect”, I mean that the act of saying something in public causes us to become more committed, or anchored, to what we have said. Public statements of opinion/belief seem to increase our “investment” and therefore raise the social cost of ever backtracking on our original position. You see this often with politicians. They will insist on the correctness of all of their prior public pronouncements even when doing so makes them ridiculous in light of new information that has become available during the interim. The Biden administration demonstrates this phenomenon in spades by their horror at the prospect of conceding that any of their original beliefs about the eventual outcomes in Afghanistan might have been misbegotten.

In some cases, of course, public “confessions” can have a beneficial effect. Twelve-step programs often have participants begin their meetings by stating their names followed by a public confession of whatever failure or addiction brought them there.  “Hi, my name is so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic”. Or whatever. There just seems to be some ineffable grounding that takes place when we “own” a position on something in public. Some weight loss programs have everyone come and weigh in, announcing the progress, or lack thereof, for each of the participants. The very fact of a public announcement can have a powerful behavior-modifying effect on everyone who participates.

Christianity and Judaism, of course, each have a central public confessional thread that runs through them. “If you confess with your mouth…” the apostle Paul wrote. And the daily, audible recitation of the Shema by observant Jews anchors the speaker’s understanding and personal investment in the meaning of it.

Social media has facilitated an environment in which vastly more people than ever before have an expansive public presence and platform. It has altered the way many people conceive of their very lives. I talk to young-ish people regularly whose calculus for much of what they do involves how it will be perceived online. They have begun living their lives as if their whole existence is a reality TV show: alas, they’re all Truman Burbank now.  But I wonder if the tendency to treat social media as a place for pronouncing opinions on the latest contentious issue has the effect of entrenching people into an excessive, rigid immovability. In the past, giving your opinion to a personal friend carried a relatively small penalty for changing your opinion later on. But once you’ve shared your views on, say, vaccines with all 800+ of your friends on Instagram, publicly changing your mind may seem, for many, quite a bit more…daunting.

My own experience has been that most people on social media are generally unpersuadable. Is my experience unique in that regard? Anyway, I find that it does little good to use the dominant social media platforms as a vehicle for meaningful dialog. I find people are more intellectually nimble and adaptable in private or small group conversations. Twitter, in particular, seems to have been designed as mostly a massive pipeline for snark.

It makes me wonder if the extended reach of social media, combined with its public nature, induces a kind of testimonial, or confessional, dynamic in users – artificially tightening their grips on the opinions they have expressed there.  At any rate, I do think there’s a real human dynamic surrounding public declarations which makes a person less likely to reverse course once their declarations have been publicly made. Social media increasingly feels like it has attributes akin to an intellectual tar pit – trapping people into some perceived obligation to keep insisting on the correctness of all their past declarations, irrespective of how foolish subsequent events may have shown their earlier declaration to be.

I’m just wondering if the apparent anchoring effect that seems to attend public social media declarations is subtly amplifying the overall polarization. Perhaps there’s something about social media’s ability to inflate the social cost of ever changing our minds which is contributing to the general discontent.

I find this interesting and puzzling at the same time.

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