I love the internet. I just wanted to get that out of the way because I’m about to do a thousand-word post on why I hate a certain aspect of the internet. First, though, my ode to the internet and how it’s opened up my world. Back in my twenties, I was a hot mess. I was deeply, chronically depressed and could barely drag my carcass out of bed in the morning. I am lucky that I have always had at least one really good friend to moor me (shoutout to Kat who has been there with me throughout the ages), but I still felt isolated and lonely.
The internet changed all that. While sitting at my desk, I can get on my computer and visit places all around the world. I don’t have to leave my house to visit all different kinds of communities that I might not have available in my neighborhood or surrounding areas. I can talk to anyone about anything. It was wonderful and made me feel a little less alone, but not completely. Why? Because even on the internet, I was a weirdo. I was fine with it, but it underscored that even on the wide world web, I was a misfit.
It started when I was into politics and visiting political websites. I would get really into them and then realize a few months or a year later that everyone was saying the same thing. It was understandable, but I got bored and frustrated because I felt the conversations were stifled. I would move on and try to find something different and then it just repeated itself.
I was talking to my brother about electric cars because he’s a Tesla fanboy*, and we are both in agreement that moving away from gas cars and towards electric cars is a good thing. However, he said something about moving towards having only electric cars, and I said, “Let’s work on making hybrid cars mainstream first, then we can talk about electric cars.” My brother said hybrids were mainstream, that they had been around for a long time. I said, yes, they had been around for some time, but they certainly weren’t mainstream. We went back and forth about this for a while, and I said mainstream as in at least half of the cars were hybrid (which I was pretty sure wasn’t the case). He said he thought it was near that, and, of course, I pulled out my phone and Googled it. In 2016, hybrids were 2% of new cars sold. 2%. I was startled by that, honestly. I thought it would be 10% – 20%, but no. 2%. My brother was stunned. He said, “Everywhere I go, I see hybrids and electrics. Most of my clients** have hybrid/electric cars. I said, “It’s because you’re steeped in the culture. You have that you’re green on your website, so your clients are self-selecting. In addition, you hang out with people with similar values, so of course you’re going to see more hybrids/electric cars.”
My point in bringing this up isn’t because I was right (although I will not hesitate to point that out), but because it’s a good example of how our unconscious biases are reinforced without us even noticing (because, unconscious, duh). My brother truly believed that hybrids were mainstream 40%-50% of new cars bought. I truly believed it wasn’t so. Obviously, one of us was wrong, and it could have as easily been me (but, it wasn’t, as I noted before). I’ve had instances before when I really believed something to be true and later found out it wasn’t. To my brother’s credit, he accepted what I told him without too much argument, which is more than some people would do. Like me, he incorporates new information into what he currently believes, even if it takes some time to adjust.
I remember during the 2012 elections, I would go around asking people in real life about a hot-button topic on Twitter. Most of the time, the real-life person would stare at me blankly, not knowing what the hell I was saying. These are people who are well-informed when it comes to politics, too. They just didn’t wade in the weeds the way political junkies on social media did. It helped me realize the dangers of social media for those of us who are heavy users. It’s way too easy to envelop yourself in a cozy bubble of yes-people and be an amen-corner for things you already believe. It’s only natural to congregate with people with similar ideas, and it’s frighteningly easy to do online. I see it happen far too often where someone who is even slightly Twitter famous quickly starts blocking people hwo disagree with them. On the one hand, I can understand. Getting hundreds/thousands of people telling you how wrong you are, most of them in very impolite words, will grind down even the most stalwart of people. On the other hand, it shuts down debate and leaves the original tweeter with only acolytes. I’ve realized that many people if not most don’t want a real debate online (including me at times) and merely want to bleat their opinions unchecked.
This bleeds over into the real world when social media users use the same jargon they do online in their real lives. Using rough metrics, there are approximately 68 million Twitter users in America. That’s a lot of users, don’t get me wrong. However, there are 326 million people in America, so roughly 1 in 5.6 people use Twitter. Honestly, that’s more than I thought it would be (displaying my own unconscious biases), but it’s still a sizable minority. So even when something is hot on Twitter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s just as important in real life. To further extrapolate, let’s say you’re passion is electric cars (yes, using that example again), and that’s all you tweet about. All your followers and the people you follow are way into electric cars as well. If that’s all you tweet about, and they’re all, “ELECTRIC CARS ALL THE TIME”, then, yeah, you’re going to think it’s the norm.
I think by now it’s common knowledge that confirmation bias is a thing. Liberals like to point at Republicans and giggle and snort over it, but we do it as well. I’ve seen it happen more and more in the past five years or so, and I firmly believe it’s because of the echo chamber effect. As I said above, one of my saving graces is that when I’m faced with evidence that my idea is wrong, I incorporate it into my way of thinking (after a lot of research, obviously). Many people don’t seem capable of doing that, instead, contorting themselves into a pretzel in order to explain away something that threatens a deeply-held belief.