Pluralism, communities, interconnectivity, sharing, exchanges of ideas . . . these were the terms used to describe the vision for the Internet by its “founding fathers”. Those idealistic geeks who jumped on early aboard the Internet wagon, envisioned the Internet transforming the world into a place without borders, powered by the spirits of humanism and open source. And in the early years, it seemed as if we were headed in that direction. Users were called “surfers” and encouraged to post their thoughts, feelings and ideas on forums and mailing lists. In the age before the captcha and fake news, writers were real people with traditional journalistic ethics.
By 2005, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times claimed, in his internationally bestselling book, that “the world is flat”. He argued that soon, all the remaining walls between people are going to fall and we were all going to embrace the freedom and exchange of thoughts and ideas. Friedman predicted that the change would affect countries, corporations, and even individuals, forcing them to open up and connect in order to remain competitive in global markets where geographical and cultural divisions would become irrelevant.
Yet, in his writing, Friedman ignored the birth of one little website in particular that was being developed right around the same time inside of the dorms of Harvard University. And it would make Friedman’s words irrelevant and change the web and humanity in profound ways no one could have imagined. The birth of Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media platforms, ripped apart the vision of the idealistic Internet. Paradoxically, social media has turned into one of the strongest anti-social forces of our times. In fact, the introduction of social media may be playing the biggest role in the creation of the divisive world we find ourselves in right now, in which the people are deeply dug into their own world view trenches. It is as if a WW3 sitzkrieg already started.
While social media’s founding fathers are building zillion dollar mansions in Hawaii, the platforms they created are polarizing society, being misused by terrorists and governments, instigators and psychos. But are they the only ones at fault for this absurd situation? Well, we all are. Campaign directors, content managers, marketers, all of us who cynically use these platforms to promote our products and ideas are taking advantage of and further aggravating the split. Perhaps, we are no better than weapons dealers who cynically arm naïve, patriotic fighters with ammunition, knowing that the means does not justify the ends but only serves to ensure that the war goes on and provides more opportunities for us arms dealers to sell more ammunition. We watch how each camp just keeps digging into their positions deeper, and readies to launch further attacks against anyone with a different point of view.
And here is the amazing fact about this world we have created: there is not one single documented case of someone that actually switched sides as a result of our work. We boldly brag about our likes and shares and exposure, yet I have never met a single person who admitted that he read a post on Facebook that was so compelling that it led him to change his world view. No matter how funny or “engaging” our posts are, we end up serving them to the same crowd every time — an audience that is already convinced of what we are trying to prove. As people dig into their ideological trenches, they are not alone; they bring their entire social graph with them. Very few people will ever dare to come out of their trenches and venture to the other side to expose themselves to a different point of view. Their social network might call them out as a traitor. “How could you “like” that guy’s page?” Many people have talked about the need to unfriend their friends on Facebook when their political tendencies were revealed during this last election.
And this carries over to the real world. Not long ago, a friend of mine who is an orthodox Jew sat with me in a non-kosher Café in Tel Aviv to have coffee. He looked nervous. When I asked him if it upset him because he worried about offending God, he said “No, it’s not about God. I am afraid that someone from the orthodox community will recognize me sitting here and then shame me on Twitter.”
When it comes to religion, sports, politics, gender, race and even entertainment, millions of people are engaged in wars with one another. And they just keep shooting at one another. This is not your old-fashioned Coke vs. Pepsi campaign. This is about the escalation of rhetoric to such a level that too many times; it is ending up in real violence.
The divisiveness clouds the user’s judgments and choices. Social media is structured in such a shallow way that users are continuously forced to pick sides. You either LIKE something or not. It is hard to not align with one side or the other in a binary world. Today in the USA, you are conservative or liberal, pro-choice or pro-life, Republican or Democrat, flip or flop, good or bad. We have UltraHD TV’s now yet see the world through one big black and White filter. And when you feel the urge to get away, like you have had too much, it’s almost impossible to escape. It chases us in our feeds, in all of our devices . . . 24/ 7.
Marketers view this split as an opportunity. They develop messaging that reinforces a particular world view – you are either a success or a looser, good looking or unattractive. I can swipe you right or swipe you left.
Campaign managers and PR professionals take the divisive language to the next level. “You’re either with us or against us. The country is in awful condition. We need to change everything and make it great again”.
Many people I know were in total shock after this last presidential election. They had no idea this was coming. And the reason they had no idea is because that they never venture outside of their trenches. They haven’t engaged in any real dialogue in years. They read posts that reassure their own world paradigm. Only with the election’s post-mortem, did they start to hear the other voices.
The world is truly split. And now, we will have the symbolic gesture of an actual wall on the border with Mexico, while the countries two Presidents are exchanging punches on Twitter.
Is there anything we can do as marketers, as people, as communities? Maybe it’s time for us to take leadership and start a “tear the virtual walls down” campaign. I have some ideas on how to run this one on Facebook.