Most of us Remember the feeling of running into a museum as a kid, excited by the vast space and endless possibilities to find that obscure dinosaur or species of fish or whatever brought us there. No matter how many times we visited the building, seeing the huge museum map with the bright red “you are here” sticker was annoying. It even helped us discover new exhibits or other places. The museum was a huge space, but a map always helped us locate ourselves, orient ourselves to our surroundings, and eventually get somewhere constructive (mostly) without getting lost.
Today, we spend most of our time in an extremely vast and complex environment: the Internet. However, most of us have little idea of its scope, topology, dimensions, or what parts we have and haven’t visited. We are in it without actually knowing it where. As birds flock together, we often align ourselves with others who share our political, social, and cultural experiences and beliefs. This is natural and often valuable: Creating shared spaces creates a sense of belonging, mutual solidarity, support, and even protection from the “tyranny of the crowd.”
But fragmentation is increasingly the result of deliberate design: segregationists who fear a change in the status quo, or those who have a vested interest in creating conflict. When we’re in a bubble—for example, a pocket of friends talking about a particular issue online, or a “filter bubble” created by content recommendation systems—our perspectives can be biased by our immediate, local contexts. Even if we sometimes come into contact with people from different bubbles, these interactions can only provide a superficial view of who they are and what they value—reflected through the prism of social media, which often rewards performance and attention-grabbing behavior. For too long our exposure to others is filtered (or no exposure at all) primarily through the norms of social media platforms or our own moral intuitions, at the risk of losing our intellectual humility, reinforcing the belief that we are at the center of the universe. and that our own ways of knowing are the only worthy ways. When this happens, everything we say or share—no matter how hurtful or toxic—is deemed legitimate because it exclusively serves a worthy ideology. As we slide, our social ignorance threatens to turn into social arrogance.
What buffers can we put in place to prevent this fate? The lovely you are here maps can help. Research with our colleagues suggests that reflective data visualizations designed to show people which social network communities they are part of can make them more aware of fragmentation in their online networks and, in some cases, lead them to follow a more diverse set of accounts. These diverse and sustained exposures are critical to improving public discourse: While forced or poorly selected exposure to diverse perspectives can sometimes reinforce ideological polarization, when done thoughtfully, they can reduce affective polarization (how much we dislike the “other” just because we see them). because it belongs to a different team).
The “social mirror” project we developed with Ann Yuan, Martin Saveski, and Soroush Vosoughi shows an example of a map of where you are. The first step in creating a map was to determine what “place” it should depict. It’s easy to define space for museums; It’s not always clear what you’re trying to map for public discussion on the Internet of. Our space represented socio-political connections on Twitter, hoping to help people visualize the “echo chambers” they enter and subsequently move to more politically pluralistic discussion networks on the platform. To do this, we developed a network visualization where nodes represent Twitter accounts, links between nodes represent the accounts that those accounts follow each other, and colors represent political ideology (blue=leaning left; red=leaning right). Participants representing one of the described accounts were invited to explore the map.