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The Social Web is a Golden Cage of Information

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John Kenneth Galbraith, in his 1958 book The Affluent Society, popularized the term "conventional wisdom." It refers to a world-view generally accepted by everyone as fact, without question. He could not have foreseen how the social web could both splinter -- and reinforce -- this concept.

Do you actively seek out different opinions than your own, or unwittingly reinforce your personal conventional wisdom by only consuming "agreeable" content? While we may think it is the former -- who doesn't have a self-image of being open-minded? -- too often, we live in a bubble.

The promise of the social web was connection and communication: it was the great equalizer that gave every voice an ear. Over the last few years, this has been badly eroded, much to our collective detriment. Consider why:

  • Implicit filtering: The flood of data means that social media sites filter the content that appears on our pages. Of all of your Facebook friends, why is it that you see posts from some people and not others?
  • There is a commercial imperative to "help" us make purchases by using technology that personalizes product recommendations. Did you ever notice that the only books you see on Amazon are those that are similar to those you've already looked at? Or that many web advertisements are also suspiciously similar -- even across different sites?
  • We are creatures of habit, and tend to do the same thing over and over. It is simple human nature to do what is comfortable. If you have the same type of coffee every morning, why be surprised that most people check the same sites every day?
  • We seek social approval. Most people avoid conflict and prefer to read opinions that support their world-views, not undermine them. We feel good when others retweet, like, and share what we say. We feel significant as we attract followers, friends, and connections (all who think as we do.)

In case there is a question about whether this is for the good or for the bad, consider these two points:

  1. Exposure to different points of view can spark new ideas: Diversity of thought is critical to creativity and innovation.
  2. Exposure to different points of view helps you understand the concerns and objections of the opposition -- or your prospective clients. It lets you walk in their shoes, and learn how to serve them better.

Finding your tribe on LinkedIn, Facebook, or YouTube might be exciting. Contributing and conversing with them even more so. But when we self-select ourselves into a social bubble, we miss an opportunity to grow ourselves, and the value of our network. Choosing to reinforce our personal conventional wisdom is self-perpetuating, and isolating.

What to do? Shake it up: Get your news from different sites. Comment on posts from different bloggers. And explore what your network is doing beyond what is presented or filtered for you on the social networks. Galbraith would be pleased.