Many of us remember the feeling of running into a museum as a child, excited by the vast space and seemingly endless opportunity to find the obscure dinosaur or fish species, or whatever it was that brought us there. No matter how many times we may have visited the building, seeing the giant museum card with the bright red “you-are-here” sticker was grounding. It even helped us discover new exhibits or other places that we might have missed out on. The museum was a large space, but the map was always there to help us locate ourselves, orient ourselves in relation to our surroundings, and ultimately navigate to a constructive place (for the most part) without getting lost.
Today, we spend much of our time in an extremely large and complex environment: the Internet. Yet most of us have very little idea of its extent, topology, dimensions, or what parts we have – and have not – visited. We’re in it without really knowing it where. Because birds of the same feather, gather in flocks, we often enjoy bubbling with others who share our political, social and cultural experiences and beliefs. This is natural and often valuable: Creating common space promotes a sense of belonging, mutual solidarity, support and even protection against “tyranny of the majority.”
But fragmentation is increasingly the result of conscious design: segregationists who fear a change in the status quo, or those with a particular interest in create conflict. When we’re in a bubble – for example, a pocket of friends talking online about a specific problem, or a “filter bubbleCreated by content recommendation systems – our perspectives may be biased by our most immediate, local contexts. And even when we are occasionally exposed to people from different bubbles, these interactions may only provide a superficial view of who they are and what they value – broken through prism of social media, which often rewards performative and attention-seeking behaviors. Having our exposure to others primarily filtered through the norms of social media platforms or our own moral intuitions too long – or no exposure at all – means we risk losing ours intellectual humilitypromotes a belief that we are at the center of the universe and that our own ways of knowing are the only ones with profit. When this happens, everything we say or share – no matter how harmful or toxic it is – is considered legitimate because it is in the service of a uniquely deserving ideology. As we slide forward, our social ignorance threatens to turn into social arrogance.
What buffers can we put in place to avoid this fate? The beloved you-are-here cards might help. Studies we conducted with colleagues suggests that reflective data visualizations designed to show people which social networking communities they are embedded in can make them more aware of fragmentation in their online network – and in some cases, make them follow a more diverse set of accounts. These diverse and persistent exposures are crucial to improving public discourse: While forced or poorly curated exposure to different perspectives can sometimes intensify ideological polarizationwhen done carefully, they can reduce affective polarization (how much we do not like “the other”, simply because we see them as belonging to another team).
That “social mirror”Project, which we developed together with Ann Yuan, Martin Saveski and Soroush Vosoughi, shows an example of a you-are-here card. The first step in creating the map involved defining what “space” it should describe. For museums, space is easy to define; for public discourse on the internet, it is not always clear what you are trying to make a card of. Our space represented sociopolitical connections on Twitter, hoping to help people visualize the “echo chambers” they are embedded in, and subsequently navigate toward more politically pluralistic discussion networks on the platform. To do this, we developed a network visualization where nodes represented Twitter accounts, links between nodes indicated that these accounts followed each other, and colors represented political ideology (blue = left-handed; red = right-handed). Participants representing one of the accounts depicted were invited to explore the map.