After having watched the movie “The Social Dilemma” and having moved uncomfortably in my seat dozens of times during and since, I came to several decisions and realizations that I wish to share. It’s funny/ironic that my first instinct is to share them on Facebook or on other social media, but actually, it’s also necessary and important that this is where this important discussion shall be held.
First and foremost, I agree with the narrative painted by the movie – but I think life is more complex than that. Social media is a heavy drug to which many of us are addicted, and its programmers may have lost control of its algorithm, which keeps us scrolling and refreshing all day long. Yes, it might be possible that the polarization that has widened in the past few years that is rooted in the “echo chamber” and “fake news” is a direct result of social media. But alongside this, social media has played a critical role in positive social change. Some might argue that Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, that both gave slight glimpses of hope for a different future, both utilized the positive potential of social media to bring hundreds of thousands of people to the streets. Social media is an important tool that allows people to stand up for their rights in legitimate and positive protests, easily and effectively.
For those of us who promote political and social change in the public sphere, there is no alternative to social media. The conversations in which we take part, and those we spark, happen here. Town hall has turned into our “feed”, and anyone who wants to say anything – whether simple or complex (I vote for the second!) – must do so online in addition, and sometimes even without, taking to the streets. We can’t create serious social change through civil society without being part of these social network conversations.
Several years ago, Facebook changed its algorithm so we will see more groups and less business/organizational pages, and the NGO world freaked out. Pretty fast we understood that this change was actually good for us, because the complex conversations we saw in groups, and the algorithm that promoted these, creates the discussions we want to see and spread. The change from stagnant pages that post promotional content to group conversations is definitely positive.
However, only those who sought such conversations participated in them; if we don’t actively read pages of people and organizations who think differently from us, we will eternally be stuck in our own echo chamber. This is genius, and it is extremely detrimental. The question, then, is how we can use this platform correctly, if “correct” means widening the echo chamber, seeing other voice than our own, getting closer instead of falling further apart.
I’m proud and happy to say that before all these changes we were able to launch “0202 – Points of View from Jerusalem” – Facebook pages that translate the discussion from the online “streets” of East, West, and Haredi Jerusalem to Hebrew, English, and Arbic – and to garner tens of thousands of followers. Each person that decided, in his/her “liking” our page, to actively break their echo chamber, to actively seek another narrative, no matter how amazingly different and uncomfortable it might be.
In the last few years, I’ve understood that my path of social change is mostly one of “with”, not of “against”. 0202 changes the echo chamber through its very existence as part of Facebook. We even bypass our own algorithm biases by using an external program that brings us every single post of the pages which we follow, instead of seeing what the algorithm would show us: what people like us, but on the other side of town, see and think. But what we want to see is: everything. Especially when it means seeing what can create a conversation, because it’s different from us.
I believe the solution to the social dilemma presented in the movie is a social effort to create ethical laws that can limit social media’s data gathering. Others might say we should ban them altogether. Either way, I choose not to take part in this, right now, because I’m more effective in the places I’m in today, namely bringing together the different sectors of Israeli society. But I did decide to make some personal changes, which you might also consider, in order to wean off my addiction and not let it control me, or worse, change my behavior subconsciously.
A year ago, I took off all social media push notifications from my phone. This week, I deleted all social media apps. I left message apps, some with and some without push notifications, based on what I understand as what is effective for my personal life and for my career. I kept Gmail, without notifications of course, but this might change. My homepages on my browser on my computer do not include Facebook. I unsubscribed all emails from all social media platforms. I will not click on any targeted promotions or “suggested” links. If something looks interesting, I’ll actively search for it. I’ll create a list of people and pages I want to follow, and actively search for them, instead of scrolling my feed. And, of course, I’ll continue friending and liking people and pages who think differently from me.
We are in the time of year of renewal and forgiveness. I wish myself, and all of us, that we will forgive ourselves for time lost on scrolling aimlessly through our feeds instead of being with people we love or doing something we love. I wish us that this year, as complicated as it might be, will be one of challenging conversations, and new thoughts. And I wish us that time spent online will bring us closer together to people who are different from us, and most importantly – that we will have lots and lots of time offline, face to face, with people we love and with people with which we disagree.