Every few days, someone in my Facebook feed makes a new announcement about how they’ve recently sorted through their Facebook friends and how everyone who can see “this post” made the cut. The thread will fill with expressions of relief and then experience sharing. “Same,” they say. Social fractionalization is happening and they don’t even know it.
We leave. We join. Like all living creatures, we swarm. We self-sort.
Academics call this behavior social fractionalization. We behave this way around every imaginable idea. In particular, academics explore fractionalization around sociological issues, political boundaries, and cultural movements. Swarms of people can influence many types of outcomes – the outcome of an election, how organizations are formed, how ideas are financed, and even how governments fail.
I am an observer of people and their sociological behaviors, both online and in-person, and find social sorting behavior to be of particular curiosity. The original academic research around social fractionalization follows the long-term behaviors of people living and moving in physical communities.
The physical communities gave us clues about what people do in digital communities. People are complex though and behave in interesting and unpredictable ways when technology starts to influence their behavior. Today, we might study how biological organisms sort themselves to get clues about how crowds of people might behave. A programmer might invent a new type of sorting algorithm that learns as it sorts. A database designer might envision new ways to organize data and even new types of data to store. A person writing an artificial intelligence algorithm might be interested in how that algorithm learns from time. A tool designed to listen might pick up word patterns in language and speech. If it was designed to know age and sage, it might even become wise.
I am interested in how online people (“avatars”) sort themselves into groups and how avatars behave in response to prompts in those groups. Facebook Groups, Twitter and Instagram Hashtags each follow different patterns of group behavior. Facebook Groups are private. Twitter and Instagram are public. Interestingly, Facebook behavior provokes a different type of avatar response because it is more private. Also, unlike Twitter and Instagram, Facebook suggests Groups that are “similar but more focused in topic” to increase the number of Groups that users join.
Does virtual online isolation of communities through socially fractionalized feeds help fuel real physical outcomes in our communities?
As I observed these avatars over time, it slowly became apparent that there were a number of inputs causing changes in their overall digital behaviors. These inputs included search behavior, hashtag clicks, the availability of the microphone to the app, photo availability, and contact uploads. As the avatar’s behavior was adjusted, an entire feed could be changed. As an avatar spent time on a platform consuming content, that behavior changed their perception of a community, both digitally and physically. I could write pages here between these two sentences, but it was interesting to consider the impact of that behavior change scaled out across physical communities.
How was social media, isolation, and social fractionalization online impacting physical community behavior on a national scale?
For the purposes of this post, imagine a mirror. That mirror represents the population of the world on social media. We are going to throw a rock at the mirror. If a whole mirror can contain all of the digital communities in a whole world and the smallest piece of that mirror contains just the people who are most like you, a digitally fractured data feed contains only the smallest pieces of the mirror that looks the most like your mind. Within the concept that I’m presenting in this post, the population has been broken into smaller and smaller sub-sets of people who have joined ever-more-refined topical groups of people like themselves.
This is your feed…
How could new ideas and new communities take shape if people had the power to reshape their feeds with community building in mind?
This is a complex thought. Entertain it with me. By reassembling the mirror and hearing voices across the broken spaces, can we reverse the effect of cultural fragmentation? Can communities even be rebuilt? Reword those sentences with “should” as the verb and reconsider the question.
Would people do it? If they did, would business investment in startups be increased? How long would it take to see businesses grow again? How would it be led? Who would lead?
Could the power for change be in your hand? Could we look beyond a tiny, fractured piece of a theoretical mirror?
I wonder if a designed digital fractionalization of virtual communities combined with a literal physical silence is what got us to this point of cultural chaos?
Given the level of influence that these interfaces have on the future of our communities, good leaders would introspectively consider the long-term steps needed to reassemble physical communities.
As always, I’m not here to give answers. I am here to pose questions and, in time, to provoke hope.
Thank you for reading.