A strong argument could be made that social media and rationality are as removed from one another as chalk and cheese. However, an enlightened, cogent approach to interaction with internet communities and applications has the potential to foster better communication, increase productivity, improve self-confidence, and break the cycle of positive feedback loops to broaden users’ world views.
Social media, broadly defined as any website or application that enables users to create and share content and interact with others, began as a microcosm of the real world where users communicated with one another in much the same way they would a neighbor they passed on the street. But as the power of online social networks grew, users began interacting with people from whom they were further removed in the real world, and the architects of these networks sought to bring in more users and to keep their users engaged for longer, the nature of the discourse shifted to the extreme.
With users spending an average of 2 hours and 24 minutes per day across an average of 8 social networks and messaging apps in 2020, social media forums evolved from simple communication tools like telephones or fax machines to something far more invasive and insidious. The digital world became its own society governed by an unseen and unaccountable mob with its own rules, norms, and standards that were distinct from those of the outside world.
Despite these new and ambiguous norms, users frequently turn to social media to help make decisions in everything from shopping choices to politics. A 2017 Institute for Public Relations study of 1,783 internet users found social media was influential in making decisions and seeking advice in travel, financial services, retail and healthcare. While study participants said they were most likely to follow social media guidance from close friends and family, online promotions, forums, and online reviews were also deemed influential. In an environment where sources can’t always be verified or validated and the voices and opinions of close friends and relatives are mixed with those of conspiracy theory crackpots, internet trolls, and other bad actors decision making is complicated.
The two primary systemic problems with making decisions based on information gleaned from social media are 1) the sheer volume of information available, and 2) the uneven way in which this information is distributed.