What I Learned After A Week Spent Popping My Social Media Bubble

"Simply the act of seeking out that information put me in a different mindset — one where I could allow myself to be wrong..."

I think we can all agree one of the few bipartisan terms that emerged from the 2016 presidential election was "bubble." Before this year, "bubble" has been floated as a term to describe one economic crisis after another. Its latest iteration, however, characterized a social one. On the off-chance you've been living under a rock (a denser, more gravitationally-challenged bubble) for the past 12 months, a "social media bubble" occurs when a person only sees posts from friends with similar backgrounds, perspectives, and values. 

Whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, a third-party voter, or a non-voter, you're most likely in some kind of bubble. According to one study, fielded by Morning Consult, only five percent of adults see social media posts that differ greatly from their world view. The Pew Research Center also found that nearly four-in-ten conservative Republicans (39 percent) and roughly the same amount of liberal Democrats (44 percent) say that news from family and friends online represents just one side, more than the moderate members of either party. On top of this, more than half (51 percent) of conservative Republicans who reported seeing mostly one-sided news considered this "OK."

I’m more than willing to admit I've been living in a bubble. I'll also admit that, yes, I like it here.

I haven't always lived in this bubble. The social media bubble of my adulthood is very much the antithesis of the real-life bubble of my childhood. Growing up in a primarily white small town in rural Pennsylvania, I was surrounded by the typical Republican rhetoric — second amendment rights, illegal immigration crackdown, economic reform, etc. (For the record, my county did vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election — with less than a one percent advantage. On the local level, they elected both a Republican senator and congressman.) 

Even before social media gave me the ability to create an alternative bubble, I knew I couldn't wait to pop this one — and did so as soon as possible. After leaving my small town to attend college in Boston, I was lucky enough to meet people who didn't look or think like me. So I traded in my old moderate Democrat in a homogenous Republican bubble for a new ultra-liberal, heterogeneous one (although, of course, it's still not as heterogeneous as it could or should be). While I've learned a lot in this new bubble, I realized, after the 2016 election, that I, like many, was blissfully — and here's the kicker — willfully ignorant.

So this is where I'm coming from. I'm taking ownership of my bubble and my readiness to live in it. Both were necessary prerequisites to acknowledge as I challenged myself to “pop” it.

Using "Pop Your Bubble," a digital tool created by The KIND Foundation, the nonprofit arm of KIND Healthy Snacks, I "followed" the public profiles of Facebook users with varying political and social views, recommended based on my newsfeed's existing slant. After following 10 people, my bubble was effectively "popped," and the learning process could begin. 

So, what happened post-pop?

Well, at first, it didn't seem like much. I expected to watch my Facebook become suddenly bombarded with links to stories from Fox News, RedState, and, of course, Breitbart. I expected to see propoganda-esque videos that made me roll my eyes, shake my head, and lament the technological advances that had brought us the camera phone, iMovie, and, consequently, here. I expected to become one of those people who wages virtual war with a stranger in the comments section. 

For the first two days, however, I didn't see much of a difference in my Facebook newsfeed. It looked like business as usual, a compilation of posts from VoNY - Vegans of New York, memes featuring Kermit the Frog, and article links from my left-leaning liberal friend group about how everything is too white, male, and heterosexual. It's quite the eclectic collection.

To amplify the Pop Your Bubble tool's intended impact, I changed my follow settings for each person's profile to "See First" — and followed another ten people. Then, I started to see a huge difference in my feed, though not necessarily a bad one. While some of the posts I saw were political, they rarely, if ever, shocked, angered, saddened, or even disappointed me. 

One frequent Facebooker posted a "Green Lives Matter" image and then, a few days later, a text post arguing against the death penalty. While I might not espouse either of these opinions openly on Facebook, I can not only understand the perspective of someone who does, but agree with them. And though I don't necessarily agree with co-opting the language of the Black Lives Matter movement to serve your purposes, no matter how noble or legitimate, I can't say that I disagree with the sentiment. I believe responsible military action is not only important, but necessary, and often, in too short supply. 

Surprisingly, it took me nearly a week to see one political post (calling Barack Obama a "puppet of the oligarchy"), which I not only disagreed with but was linked to another Facebook post filled with other unverified claims, including but not limited to the erroneous fact that President Obama funded ISIS. Being confronted with this information, regardless of accuracy, was valuable because it forced me to confront and fact check my previously held assumptions. 

Up until that single post, however, the only other one that elicited a negative reaction from me was not political at all, but rather about a mother and son getting unicorn frappuccinos. Sure, a particularly adept devil's advocate could argue that anything involving an over-priced, labor-intensive, corporate milkshake exemplifies the class struggle between the haves and the have nots, but that's another thinkpiece for another day. And while I'm certainly not against mother-son bonding, I simply cannot support anything positive associated with the unicorn frappuccino. 

But more often than I witnessed these kinds of posts, I caught glimpses into these strangers lives. I saw their families, their work, their vacations, even their sources of inspiration — all small, everyday things that could tell me as much about their values, if not more, than their political affiliations. 

Though the experience of popping my social media bubble was not what I anticipated, what I did see taught me an unexpected lesson. It's not necessarily what you see or how much you see that can open you up to other people's perspectives. Simply the act of seeking out that information in and of itself put me in a different mindset — one where I could allow myself to be wrong, and in doing so, allow myself to learn something new from someone new. 

I think we have a problem when we think the other side is evil, or that the other side is "other" at all. I think we have a problem when we get our news from a single source or a single type of person. I think we have a problem when we actively avoid hearing both sides of a story. It's as true for the latest hot gossip to hit your friend group as it is for matters of national security. And let's face it, social media distributes both in equal measure.

But I also think we have a solution, whenever we, as individuals, are willing to seek it out.  

We need less bubbles and more... I don't know, foam parties? Those always seem like fun and — from what I’ve seen on social media — like there’s plenty of room for everyone.

Cover image via Unsplash