Social media is, for many, an escape. To glance down at our phones is to enter a safe world composed of our friends and family sharing our preferred content. This allows us to maintain the strength of our relationships even from a distance.
These strong ties also fashion a tough, protective cocoon out of our newsfeeds and notifications. Recommendation algorithms feed us the most relevant content to our interests, or the content deemed most likely to engage us. These algorithms are developed based on our observed actions and histories - not on our thirst for new experience and strange knowledge.
This is an inevitable result of the way these social systems are designed. On Facebook, the quickest path to content is the easiest, and the most likely to delight us: through our immediate friends. But the easy path also lulls us into a passive relationship with social media - we see the same websites shared over and over or small variations on a headline theme. With research showing that people choose to associate very strongly with those of similar political persuasion, it’s likely we only hear or see those views we agree with. Thus the echo chamber is created.
It’s important to note that we do this by choice - but the choice is passive. Because we long ago picked our preferred friends, we long ago committed to the content prioritized on our news feed. Because we long ago performed certain actions online, certain advertisers are shown to us that reflect our entrenched interests and perspectives.
But in my view, a truly healthy relationship with social media means actively using it to find content that can expand us, not simply sustain us.
I have found a few reliable ways to escape the echo chamber - to have a sort of social media “out of body experience.” I use these tools daily to step into the minds and perspectives of those unlike me. There’s two reasons I absolutely must do this:
- I want to make things better. I believe that to change the world, we must first seek to understand it and love it. To hear others’ thoughts in their own words and to visualize their perspectives humanizes them and expands my knowledge of them and their worlds. Social media can be used to build understanding and empathy - and without them, nothing can change for the better.
- I want to stay happy. Reading things that could upset me or that I could disagree with is sometimes unpleasant, but always necessary to sustain long-term happiness on social media. To maintain a healthy (read: not depressing) relationship with social media, it has been shown that you need to remain active in using it. That means engaging directly with other users by commenting or creating your own content to share on social media, rather than simply using it for news aggregation. To me, it also means being active in finding the content I consume on a daily basis and stepping outside the “feed.”
Here are some simple methods I use every day to escape the echo chamber. I hope they work as well for you.
1) Curate lists of alternative opinions.
I have often used the lists feature on Twitter liberally to organize the voices my life - friends, coworkers, influencers, trusted news sources, comedians. But one list I make sure to check daily is my “Disagree” list. It is entirely composed of people I generally do not see eye-to-eye with: mostly certain columnists, politicians, and businesspeople.
I’ll take some time to go through and see what content they’ve created to share, what issues they are engaging with, how people are responding to their message, and so on. Reading through gets me out of my comfort zone and helps stimulate my creative mind. It also helps me understand the language these influencers use and the effect it has on those who follow them. Being active in looking through this list is important - even when the content is unpleasant, I’m able to channel negative feelings into strong, productive energy afterward.
2) Visit pages for things that I don’t use or follow.
On Facebook in particular I like to visit brand pages for products I don’t currently or would never use. I ask myself: How is the company trying to reach its customer base, and who do they believe their customers are? How is it different from the way brands normally try to engage me, or people like me?
I’ll also visit fan pages for artists or shows that I don’t have interest in. Then I ask: how do the fans interact with their interests? How is it different from the way I choose to interact with my interests? How do the artists or producers respond? Understanding other peoples’ communities helps shed light on the way I form and build friendships and how I participate in my interests.
3) Use the “Discover” feature as the main feature.
I believe the Discover feature is not meant to be a novelty on social media - it’s supposed to be the primary feature. On Twitter, I frequently go through the top trending hashtags and choose one that seems irrelevant to my interests. I read manually through recent tweets and figure out for myself what’s getting talked about and why.
Meanwhile, on Snapchat, I use Discover to briefly scroll through content from brands I don’t particularly care about. I follow promoted Stories from events that I wouldn’t particularly want to attend. I watch the faces of the people involved and I recognize the joy and excitement that I feel toward my own strong interests and close friends.
I strongly recommend doing these three things every day, or as regularly as you use social media. If you use these methods, I promise you will end up with a stronger and more active relationship with social media. You will also be happier and more understanding of others - and maybe you will discover something crucial that you will carry the rest of your life.
Remember: Social media is a very powerful tool when we wield it, but it is just as powerful when it is wielding us.
You are not your feed. Go explore.