The world seems to have caught up with something I’ve been saying for a while – namely that the echo chamber effect of social media is generally a bad thing.
I also argued earlier this year that Facebook might be helping Donald Trump get away with many of the ridiculous things he was saying and doing during his election campaign.
Hopefully you’ll agree that this echo-chamber – or ‘the bubble’, as it’s come to be known – has had at least some effect on the way politics in the West has moved over the last year.
I also hope most of you will agree with me that this stifling of debate online is not good for politics.
My concern now – and I hate to sound like a doom-monger – is that this could just be the beginning.
The reason I’m worried even sounds a bit dystopian. It is the rise of the…
I am talking, of course, about the increasing popularity of dark social media.
Dark social simply refers to the type of content that isn’t in the public domain – and is primarily made up of messaging apps like snapchat, Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp.
It’s something digital marketers like me are thinking about a lot at the moment, because the stats are irrefutable – people are moving increasingly away from public posting.
The question that’s got me worried is why?
Well the first thing is that people are starting to understand that the stuff they do online sticks around – those public posts get remembered forever. And nobody wants those pictures from the office Christmas party getting them in trouble with their new boss five or ten years down the line.
The other factor is that they can share things they don’t want people other than close friends to know about. This might be those same party photos, or some risqué jokes, or perhaps a political opinion they know will be shared by their immediate peers.
There is, by definition, very little data on what people are actually sharing on dark social – but follow the logic with me for a minute.
If there is a confirmation bias happening on public social – where we are all increasingly looking only at things we already agree with, why shouldn’t that be happening on dark social too?
And when you remove the checks and balances of the public forum – shouldn’t there be more reason for us to worry about it?
After all, racists talking only to racists are more likely to say racist things. We all feel more comfortable talking with like-minded people. But that doesn’t mean talking ONLY to like-minded people does us much good.
And where previously the public would have had trust in the mainstream media, which would have at least attempted to check facts and correct unfounded opinions – many who consume media only online now have no such thing. All they have is the bubble.
Dark social – basically direct mass messaging – is already something brands are starting to pick up on. It’s a powerful tool for communicating with incredibly engaged audiences, who are completely within their comfort zone.
So what’s the problem?
My worry is that the same thing could happen in politics, where a Trump-like figure – or even Trump himself – could start direct-messaging millions of devout followers. And those millions would be in an digital environment where there are no contrary voices whatever.
What’s worse – people on the other side of the political spectrum wouldn’t even know what was being said.
It would be like ‘the bubble’ squared.
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This may be a way off – after all, nobody really seems yet to have leveraged dark social for anything like the return that they get from public social. But that doesn’t mean they won’t. And that certainly won’t stop brands, and perhaps politicians, from trying.
Open debate is a good thing. Talking to people you disagree with is a good thing.
If you can measure political progress in terms of a society’s ability to make compromises – which I don’t think would be a bad gauge – then surely this closing-in of the individual’s opinions around himself represents a regression?
This talk of a dark social bubble might sound like absurd paranoia but, then, so did Donald Trump and Brexit.
The media we consume and the way we consume it is changing politics – and it’s not necessarily for the better. This ‘bubble’ effect will continue if left unchecked, and could become amplified by our migration away from debating in public.
I hope we can find a way to and start talking to each other again.