Many of us remember the feeling of running into a museum as a child, excited by the vast space and seemingly endless possibility of finding that obscure dinosaur, or a kind of fish, or whatever it was that brought us there. No matter how many times we may have visited the building, seeing the giant museum map with the bright red sticker “you-are-here” was awesome. It even helped us discover new exhibits or other places we might have missed. The museum was a vast space, but the map was always there to help us locate ourselves, orient ourselves in relation to our surroundings, and finally navigate to a building site (mostly) without getting lost.
Today we spend much of our time in a vast and complex environment: the Internet. However, most of us have very little idea of its size, topology, dimensions, or what parts we have — and have not — visited. We are in it without really knowing where. Because feathered birds flock together, we often find ourselves in bubbles with others who share our political, social, and cultural experiences and beliefs. This is natural, and often valuable: Creating common spaces fosters a sense of belonging, mutual solidarity, support and even protection against “tyrannies of the majority”.
But fragmentation is increasingly the result of intentional design: segregators who fear a change in the status quo, or those with a vested interest in creating conflict. When we’re in a bubble — say, a pocket of friends online talking about a specific thing, or “filter bladder”Created by content recommendation systems — our perspectives can be influenced by our most immediate, local contexts. And even when we are sometimes exposed to people of different bubbles, these interactions can only provide a superficial view of who they are and what they are worth — refracted through the prism of social media, which often rewards performance and attention-seeking behavior. Have our exposure to others primarily filtered through the standards of social media platforms or our own moral intuitions Too long — or having no exposure — means we risk losing ours intellectual humilitygrowing belief that we are at the center of the universe and that our own ways of being are the only ones with merit. When that happens, everything we say or share, no matter how harmful or toxic, is considered legal because it serves a single meritorious ideology. As we slip, our social ignorance threatens to transform into social arrogance.
What buffers could we set up to avoid this fate? The dear maps of you-are here could help. We did research with colleagues suggests that reflective data imagery designed to show people in which social networking communities they are embedded may make them more aware of the fragmentation of their Internet networks — and in some cases will encourage them to follow more diverse accounts. These diverse and ongoing discoveries are critical to improving public discourse: While forced or poorly cured exposure to a variety of perspectives can sometimes intensify ideological polarizationwhen done thoughtfully, they can reduce affective polarization (how much we dislike “the other” simply because we see them as belonging to a different team).
The “social mirrorA project we developed with Ann Yuan, Martin Saveski, and Soroush Vosoughi shows one example of a you-are-here map. The first step in creating the map involved defining what “space” it should describe. For museums, defining the space is easy; for public speaking on the internet, it’s not always clear what you’re trying to make a map of of. Our space represented socio-political links on Twitter, with the hope of helping people visualize the “echo cameras” in which they are embedded and then navigate to more politically pluralistic discussion boards on the platform. To do this, we developed an online image where nodes represented Twitter accounts, links between nodes indicated that those accounts followed each other, and colors represented a political ideology (blue = left-leaning; red = right-leaning). Participants representing one of the pictured accounts were invited to explore the map.