Social media utopia fuels real life polarity

Illustration by Ricardo Rodriguez Espinoza.

Alan Rodriguez Espinoza

Contributing Writer

Many of us praise Twitter and Facebook for connecting us with people of similar political opinions. We see social media’s ability to foster political communities as something that leads our country in the right direction.

We’re wrong. Instead of encouraging discourse, our timelines are tearing us apart.

One criticism of social media is that it allows the user to regulate their self-image and micromanage how others perceive them. I post everything good about my life for the world to see, and I hide the negative.

This is true of social media, but it works both ways. Not only does social media allow me to alter how I look to others — it also lets me to dictate how the world looks to me. Any opinion I disagree with can be gone with just the click of a mute, unfollow or block button.

The result is a timeline tailored just for me, with all the unpleasantry erased and no need for confrontation. It is the world, represented on my phone in the perfect, ideal way I wish it looked. It is a virtual utopia — a bubble waiting to burst.

And so it does. Every time I lock my phone and look up from my screen, I am reminded that the world, in fact, has no mute, unfollow or block button. The world has real problems, and people disagree on how to solve them.

So I retire back to my virtual reality where everything is easier. Why put up with a conservative in person when I can talk to a progressive online who will make me feel more comfortable?

On the other side of the isle, the same thing is happening. Republicans and conservatives follow other Republicans and conservatives, indulging in a simulation of what they wish the world looked like, searching to validate their beliefs and morals among themselves in the same way we do on the left.

This phenomenon is nothing new. Back in the ‘90s, when the closest thing we had to Twitter and Instagram was forums and discussion boards, symptoms of these web-induced delusions were already arising. In her 1994 essay “Pandora’s Vox,” writer Carmen Hermosillo explored this concept.

“Western society has a problem with appearance and reality,” Hermosillo wrote under her pseudonym, humdog. “It keeps wanting to split them off from each other, make one more real than the other, invest one with more meaning than it does the other… it is this tension that informs all the debates about Real and Not-Real that infect cyberspace with regards to identity, relationship, gender, discourse, and community.”

We prefer to live in a simulation where our politics are moral truth and we never have to disagree with anyone. But in the end, this simulation is just that — a simulation. It is not real, but it has real-life effects.

As we condition ourselves to prefer our timelines over the messy politics of the real world, we forget how to tolerate opinions different from our own. Worse even, we perpetuate this intolerance within our groups online and we chastise the other side without seeking to understand it first.

Our pursuit of what Hermosillo called a “desire to invest the simulacrum with the weight of reality” instead plunges us deeper and deeper into the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Instead of finding common ground with our opponents, we are becoming more polarized and further divided.

We are losing sight of what makes this country great — compromise.

We yearn for the good old days of bipartisanship in this country, but how can our representatives see eye to eye in Congress when we can’t even see eye to eye on Twitter?

Days before her death, Hermosillo deleted her online profiles, as if to suggest her presence online and in this world were one and the same. Instead of trying to separate our timelines from our real lives, maybe we should let them more accurately represent the world we live in.

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