There is a burgeoning hub for polarizing partisan politics. And no, this isn’t a reference to House of Cards. Our divided politics extends beyond the Beltway (both real and fictional) and into the very networks we use to gather and communicate information and opinions: our social networks.
Last week, Pew Research Center released research mapping conversations on Twitter. Using keyword searches and tweet interactions, such as replies and mentions, they found six types of networks that form interconnected communities around topics. One network in particular is identified as the “polarized crowd.” This community cluster consists of two large, disconnected groups of users with very few, if any, users that are involved in both conversations. This user cluster, as the name suggests, splits along party lines. Those who identify themselves as liberal (through specific hashtags) engage in interactions only with other liberals, and those indentifying as conservative (again, through hashtags) interact only with other conservatives. Seldom is there an opportunity for exposure among different viewpoints.
Although Twitter users, especially those who focus their conversations and interactions on politics, make up a small percentage of overall internet users, our social networks tend to mirror our networks in real life. We gravitate toward those who share similar priorities, beliefs, and interests. And yet, there are also people in our networks who might be complete opposites, shaking up the homogeneous nature of our networks. Even in the case of the polarized discussion, there is an opportunity rooted in the very nature of our political discourse.
Social media is a great equalizer – those who are steering conversations don’t have to be celebrities or even a verified news source. They can be people who are knowledgeable about an issue or have a compelling argument to make. The quality of the conversations we engage in might actually follow the old adage: you get as much out as you put in.
As we call upon our leaders to collaborate and listen to one another despite their differing views, remember that there is a unique opportunity for us to do the same in our social networks.