many of us remember the feeling of walking into a museum as a kid, excited by the vast space and seemingly infinite possibility of finding that obscure dinosaur or fish species, or whatever it was that got us there. No matter how many times we’ve visited the building, seeing the giant museum map with the bright red “you’re-here” sticker was earthy. It even helped us discover new exhibits or other places we may have covered up. The museum was a huge space, but the map was always there to help us locate ourselves, orient us in relation to our environment, and ultimately navigate to a constructive spot (usually) without losing our way.
Today we spend much of our time in an extraordinarily large and complex environment: the Internet. Yet most of us have little idea of its magnitude, topology, dimensions, or which parts we have and have not visited. We’re in it without really knowing it Where† Because birds of a feather come together, we often hide in bubbles with others who share our political, social and cultural experiences and beliefs. This is natural and often valuable: the creation of shared spaces fosters a sense of belonging, mutual solidarity, support and even protection against ‘tyrannies of the majority’.
But fragmentation is increasingly the result of deliberate design: segregationists who fear a change in the status quo, or those with a vested interest in create conflict† When we are in a bubble, for example a group of friends talking about a specific problem online, or a “filter bubblemade by content recommendation systems – our perspectives can be biased by our most immediate, local context. And even if we are occasionally exposed to people from different bubbles, those interactions may only provide a superficial picture of who they are and what they value — broken by the prism of social media, which often rewards performative and attention-seeking behavior. Our exposure to others is primarily filtered by the standards of social media platforms or our own moral intuitions too long — or having no exposure at all — means we’re at risk of our intellectual humilitypromoting the faith that we have on the center of the universe and that our own ways of knowing are the only ones with merit. When this happens, anything we say or share – no matter how harmful or poisonous – is considered legitimate because it serves an extremely meritorious ideology. As we slide further, our social ignorance threatens to turn into social arrogance.
What buffers can we create to avoid this fate? The beloved you-am-here cards may be able to help. Research we conducted with colleagues suggests that reflective data visualizations designed to show people which social networking communities they are embedded in could make them more aware of fragmentation in their online networks — and in some cases lead them to follow a more diverse set of accounts. These diverse and sustained exposures are critical to enhancing public discourse: while forced or misconfigured exposure to different perspectives can sometimes: intensify ideological polarizationif done carefully, they can reduce affective polarization (how much we hate ‘the other’ simply because we see them as belonging to a different team).
the “social mirror” project, which we developed with Ann Yuan, Martin Saveski and Soroush Vosoughi, shows an example of a you-are-here card. The first step in creating the map was to define what “space” it should describe. For museums, defining space is easy; for public discussions on the internet it is not always clear what you are trying to make of a map from† Our space represented socio-political connections on Twitter, hoping to help people visualize the “echo chambers” they are embedded in and then navigate to more politically pluralistic discussion networks on the platform. To do this, we developed a network visualization in which nodes represented Twitter accounts, links between nodes indicated that those accounts followed each other, and colors represented political ideology (blue = leaning left; red = leaning right). Participants representing one of the depicted accounts were invited to explore the map.