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Social Media Is Narrowing Our Perspectives

Pluto helped me realize social media is tightening the circles of influence in my life. 

July 16, 2015
 

This week I realized that social media is tightening the circles of influence in my life.

On Tuesday, Pew Research Center released a report that stated, “clear majorities of Twitter (63%) and Facebook users (63%) now say each platform serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.” This means that with the ability to like and follow based on personal interests and passions, we are narrowing our sources of news and allowing ourselves to align even more closely with those who think like we do. And neither is a good thing.

Here’s the story of my personal epiphany.

I don’t have expertise in any area of science, but I am a voracious reader of information about a number of topics and have just enough knowledge to share and consume social media posts with some level of intelligence. Based on my 14-year-old daughter’s interests, I have expanded my reading to include the broad topics of space and space exploration.

For that reason, I woke up on Tuesday with great expectations for the pictures of Pluto to roll into my media and social media feeds and the entire day’s worth of details didn’t disappoint. In between my meetings, I read NASA’s feed, news coverage and media and social media postings from colleagues and friends. Based on my news and social media consumption, I felt as if a majority of people shared an interest in the flyby—and at my most gleeful moments I hoped the country cared about science like I do.

And, I was wrong. Just plain wrong.

I tweeted about New Horizons and assumed, like the rest of my feed was reporting to me, that I was just shouting into the echo chamber. But I quickly learned I was just shouting. I heard back through a couple of tweets and many more direct messages (from those who were afraid to admit publicly to being not in-the-know) that people weren’t following at the rates I assumed and one colleague suggested I was over tweeting about the topic.

Devastated, I started to search the front pages of a number of news outlets and realized that my top news wasn’t nearly as interesting nationally as other news was to other audiences. And at that moment I understood that, over time and through a social media narrowing process, I created a safe zone for myself and I returned to it over the course of each day.

I had surrounded myself with a subset of the world that, like me, finds Pluto phenomenally interesting and winnowed out those who don’t.

So, what does this have to do with higher education?

When I visit with faculty, I occasionally meet someone who is convinced that their specific area of scholarship is being buzzed about nationally and coverage is rather extensive. Often that is far from reality.

I now have greater empathy for that perspective.  I usually begin my meetings with focused faculty by asking what they are reading, where they see the articles they like best and who in their industry is worthy of the attention they are receiving. This helps me to understand what media they value and who they want to surpass with quality media hits. But I think I am going to expand my questions to include who they follow on social media and what types of posts are getting their attention. This might help me to propose others they can follow and to benchmark the influencers and the outlets that are shaping their worldview. It allows me an insight into ways to expand my exposure to their topics and provide additional opinions, resources and outlets back to them. And as importantly, it will provide a way for me to create realistic expectations for media interest and coverage.

What am I doing differently?

I rejiggered my social media followings and will continue to do so. I’ll keep those who are my kindred spirits, but I also added back in those I had deleted because they made my blood boil or I rolled my eyes at their language or doubted their approaches. And I also reached out to a couple of people who have very different opinions than mine and asked who they find smart these days and really “gets it.” Their recommendations are my next social media additions.

And, at least for one day, I didn’t allow myself to narrow the news I read as the day progressed. We all like to be able to talk in deep ways about deep topics, but that specificity adds additional tapering of perspective.

My media consumption has shifted significantly in the past five or so years and I know I’m not alone on this front. I encourage others to review who and what is providing them with their news and consider how they’ve arrived at their list of professional influencers. Now might be the time to broaden who you allow to share information with you—especially if you are convinced that large sectors of the country agree with you on any one topic. Heck, we can’t even agree that Pluto is cool.

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