you're reading...
Philosophical Meanderings

Social Media: Creating Insular Communities

Just recently I got into a discussion on Facebook with some of my mother’s friends about the goings on in Wisconsin. To make a long story short, we disagreed about a lot of things including tax cuts and unions.  I ventured to my mom’s page to see some of the other discussions between her friends around various issues (usually threaded from an article she posted) and I found myself shocked. “This is crazy talk,” I was thinking. It was the equivalent of watching Fox News or listening to Glenn Beck. Then I began to think a little…….

Were one of these people to scan the conversations I have online they would probably label it “liberal shenanigans” or even “crazy talk.” However, we are not a part of each other’s conversations. Social media has a way of creating insular communities where we only read and discuss what we agree with. Comments tend to be supportive and originate from people who share the same views.

As my mom stated in a conversation we had about the discussion, it’s hard to talk to people who don’t agree with you. It often feels like a war. This is especially true when using social media tools that limit us to asynchronous commenting or using limited characters. In addition, sometimes comment areas and online conversations can lose civility due to the format and the fact that there is no face behind the words being said.

Still, it is important that we engage those with whom we disagree. We need to hear the other side. We need to engage the other side. It’s how we better understand our own beliefs. Sometimes, we may even question our long held beliefs and really reflect on them. They may also learn a bit from us as well.

One of the reasons why I love participating in this blog is because we challenge each other’s thinking. Still, at the root of it all, we are like-minded individuals. I wonder what steps we can take to engage people who may not agree with us or who may think we are ‘liberal crazies.’  Obviously, name-calling and labeling will have to be the first thing to eliminate, and remaining civil is key, but I’m wondering whether it’s worth a try.

For the record–my mom is very open-minded.


22 thoughts on “Social Media: Creating Insular Communities

  1. This is why it is critical that we reach outside of our comfort zone and engage people in discussions (not arguments) about why we believe in what we do. Our objective should not be to convince them of the rightness of our argument, but just to spread the word, that there is an alternative argument.

    Some of us need to stop arguing with the people who are in the opposite camp, and spend our time instead convincing those people who are still on the fence that this is an important issue and that we have a valuable perspective on the issue.

    Posted by dwees | February 20, 2011, 11:01 pm
    • Yes, David, I think the key is not to go into a conversation trying to ‘win,’ but rather to educate or just share a different viewpoint. Perhaps we need to be deliberate and state our purpose for sharing our perspective as well.

      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | February 22, 2011, 10:17 am
  2. Back in October, I made the commitment to seek out alternative perspectives and viewpoints on matters relating to schooling and education. My motivation was well-intentioned: I simply wanted to understand what others were saying about what mattered to me. After lurking for a couple of weeks, I jumped in with a personal introduction, and a comment. In introducing myself, I admitted that I was likely someone that held some different ways of looking at things. I described myself as a progressive (the group often uses the term in a derogatory manner), but as someone who was as passionate and committed to the idea of quality public education as they were.

    Within an hour, there was a message posted from a user, warning participants that they should know who I was and what I stood for. They referenced some of my other writing, and throughout the day, I was poked, prodded, questioned and, generally speaking, made to feel like an intruder.

    I’ve been back to their site on a regular basis and have continued to comment. I don’t think that I’m as much of an outsider, but I have noticed one thing. When I, or someone else with an alternative perspective, chimes in, the number of comments increases drastically. It’s like there is a built in immune system that reacts as soon as something foreign enters.

    I believe, as Mary Beth suggests, that if I were to meet these same people in a pub or coffee shop (I would prefer the former, thank you very much) our ability to communicate about our differences would be much effective and productive.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 21, 2011, 8:33 am
    • What a great idea, Stephen. I applaud your bravery. I have seen similar things happen when commenters with a different viewpoint have wedged into conversation in a community. It is like, as you describe, a built in immune system. While I often wish that I could have a face to face discussion with those I disagree with, I wonder if each of us would be so candid without the protective layer of a screen?

      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | February 22, 2011, 10:19 am
  3. One of the reasons we must get better at teaching controversy is that much of America lies within a culture where challenging ideas is treated as a personal affront. I have struggled mightily since coming to “The Midwest” to have the kind of conversations basic to the pub or streetcorner in my other homes, but political disagreement in this environment is perceived as personally hostile.

    And we must get our students beyond that.

    We must understand that political decision-making cannot be “faith-based” in a pluralistic society. I do not mean by that that your religious/moral background won’t ground your political beliefs – I know that my religious upbringing is deeply embedded in my leftist politics – but that, unlike the American view of religious absolutism, political decision-making must have rationality and compromise applied, and must begin from the concept that disagreement is both inevitable and healthy.

    Even at our most controversial, we must listen and be rational. I remember NY Governor Mario Cuomo, an incredibly devout and living-the-life Catholic, pointing out that it took the Catholic Church more than a millennium to decide “when life began” so it might be impossible for all groups in America to come to a single thought on abortion in a century. That realization did not effect his religious faith, but it altered his idea of governing.

    Posted by Ira Socol | February 21, 2011, 10:18 am
    • Thanks for sharing the link, Ira. I grew up in a household where we don’t shy from talking politics, even if we disagree. However, whenever I bring up a political discussion in other arenas, I find that most of the time I’m looked at as a ‘party killer’ or that I’m ‘bringing people down.’ Our country was founded on discussion, debate and disagreement. Since when has working out an idea become a ‘downer?’ I think it may have something to do with what you describe. Political disagreement is seen as a personal affront. Perhaps this is because we have let the screaming heads on TV allow us to think that *that* is what political discourse and disagreement looks like? All the more reason why we need to be teaching our students what true discourse and disagreement looks like. Thanks.

      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | February 22, 2011, 10:25 am
  4. Hi MaryBeth,
    While I agree with the gist of your comments, my response is, “it depends”. How we engage with people who may disagree with us depends on the forum, which you commented on in your post, but it also depends on one’s gut feeling (based on evidence) of whether or not the other person is truly interested in a dialogue. I suspect that someone you know is more willing to engage in a one-to-one dialogue than someone you’ve never met. That’s where the importance of blogging, twitter, letters to the editor, etc come in. Social media has the power to galvanize change. Examples abound that this is so. I think we need to keep in mind our purposes and which media will serve those purposes best. To sum up, though it may sound cliched: we must learn to pick our battles so we reach the greatest numbers of people with accurate information that will inspire them to change the way things are in order to remake the world into a better, more humane place in the present and the future. Unfortunately, some people with whom we disagree don’t see it that way and discussing with the idea that we will change their perspective is a waste of time. However, discussing in order to better understand the “other’s” perspective would, I agree, strengthen our own arguments.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | February 21, 2011, 11:27 am
    • I completely agree, Elisa. I have found myself in a dialogue before where I began to realize that the other person either wasn’t even reading my arguments and was merely attacking me or that I was ‘wasting my time’ trying to get them to see my point of view. However, I’m beginning to wonder, as David stated above, whether we can start of a discussion with the understanding that we are not trying to convince anyone that we are right, but rather trying to share the other side or a different viewpoint. I think social media is a two-edged sword. It has done amazing things for making people’s voices heard, but it has also allowed us to pick and choose which voices we hear.

      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | February 22, 2011, 10:29 am
  5. An interesting thread might be to compare the meaning/use of the words “discuss” and “argue”.

    Posted by Mom | February 21, 2011, 1:51 pm
  6. On the topic of getting stuck in one’s own small, self-contained worlds in social media, please see this wonderful Ted Talk by Ethan Zuckerman originally posed up here by Monika this past summer.

    It describes the typical African American/White segregation on Twitter, Americans’ lack of awareness of millions of Brazilian twitter users, the ruts we seem to fall into in our discourse and media feeding and consumption patterns, in spite of an ever-broadening world. I really took this to heart social-media-wise–trying to follow lots of folks whom I might not seem to have connections with, read blogs from all over the world, and as Stephen said, interact lots with folks who are inclined to disagree with me.

    As for the insularity here, I’m sorry Stephen that you felt disrespected and knocked around when you came on board here. A conversation some of us had at Educon recently was that there are too many white people here, too many people with similar backgrounds and inclinations, too many folks from “similar” kinds of schools. Originally, my sense was that there was a sense of relief in “finding” others to talk to. (You all know this developmental cycle, described by Beverly Daniel Tatum, as an “immersion” stage where people need/want to surround themselves with folks like them, presumably as a way to incubate activism and re-engagement with a larger world.) Are things now, however, too insular? Is there a necessary turn in the developmental cycle of this blog?

    What say ye, Coop commenters? And thank you Marybeth for raising this absolutely critical topic.


    Posted by Kirsten | February 21, 2011, 2:19 pm
    • I”m sorry Kirsten; I just re-read my original comment and it made it sound like this was the blogspace where it appeared I wasn’t too welcome! Not so. On the contrary, this has been the most welcoming experience I have ever had.

      No, it was another space, one that I knew to represent different views than the ones that I held, and still hold.

      I’m sorry for the miscommunication. You folks have been, and continue to be a real home for me!!!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 21, 2011, 2:26 pm
    • Thanks for the link, Kirsten. I wish I had an extra 24 hours in a day to watch all of the TED talks I know I have missed!

      As for this community, I am intrigued by the cycle you describe of ‘incubating activism.’ Perhaps that’s what we, here at the co-op are doing. We are figuring out what we believe and why we believe it before we bring our ideas to the larger world.

      As for the ‘developmental cycle’ of the blog, I am wondering if we could try something similar to what Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier do on the their Bridging Differences blog or what Chad has done on RiShawn Biddle’s blog. Perhaps we need to open up to those who we know hold different viewpoints (by invitation?) explaining the purpose of having meaningful dialogue. This could be a weekly series or maybe just a ‘when it happens’ event.


      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | February 22, 2011, 10:36 am
  7. I have found twitter useful for finding common ground with folks in and around education with whom I differ substantially on many points. I enjoy tweeting with RiShawn Biddle and Tom Vander Ark, and I often pay more attention to their tweets and blog posts than I do to the tweets of people who agree with me more broadly (close tweeps and present company excepted).

    Moreover, in certain ways, I also don’t have that great an idea of how aligned we really are. Certainly Kirsten is right about the Coöp, but I post all kinds of wacky ideas here and on my blog that get little or no play. For example, I couldn’t tell any of you how any of you feel about my views on unions and talent management for teachers and students. Has anyone here gleaned the true extent of my indifference to Diane Ravitch?

    Part of what makes this space work for me is that we share enough in common that I trust you to take issue with me in useful ways.

    But it is valuable to me, as well, to have reformers ask me why we should teach reading differently. It’s valuable to me to have reformers ask me what schools I’m talking about when I talk about schools that get it right. It’s valuable to me to have more traditional teachers balk at stray #edchat comments of mine.

    We’re not very diverse here, but there are hidden depths to us and our conversations that we have yet to explore. One of the reasons we haven’t gone deeper into our disagreements is because of our open editorial stance – we post pretty organically on what speaks to us as individuals, and while we spark one another, we aren’t writing and cross-commenting on a common topic.

    I don’t think we should do that in an artificial way – I greatly appreciate Casey’s reasoning against this – but I’m happy to post here with anyone interested on a common topic to see again what happens.

    Someone page Aaron for me.


    PS – All that being said, yes, by all means, Kirsten, let’s diversify.

    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 21, 2011, 2:55 pm
    • I would agree, Chad, that we are diverse in our backgrounds and experiences. I remember us talking recently about doing a post where we all shared our ideas on one topic within one post. Perhaps a post like that where we each have a section to share our point of view on, for instance, Diane Ravitch, or perhaps on unions (though Casey has started a nice conversation on that already).

      I don’t think it would artificial. To me, it’d be kind of like an asynchronous panel discussion.

      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | February 22, 2011, 10:40 am
      • What else can we think of? I’d rather not write about Diane Ravitch at all.

        Digital literacy is a topic near and dear to my hearts these days, as is students’ hunger for information. We could also tackle a book together and with other participating catalysts. The current state of democracy in our classrooms? Compromises we’ve quit and those we have not?

        What’s on your mind?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | February 23, 2011, 9:07 pm
      • Hmm..Digital Literacy is an interesting one. Right now I’m engrossed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Needed a break from that heavy reading stuff 😉

        Maybe a discussion, as Kima’s earlier thread in our group suggested, about motivation and rewards in schools?

        Posted by marybethhertz | February 23, 2011, 9:49 pm
  8. By all means. Diversify. Bring some muslims into the conversation.

    Posted by Mom | February 21, 2011, 10:03 pm
  9. Andrew Keen’s book, “the Cult of the Amateur” foretold of this insulation several years ago. Had we been willing, or able, to critically assess technology, we might have foreseen this and done something about it. Not only do we need to teach people how to disagree, we must teach people how technology changes us in ways we do not expect it to.

    Posted by jerridkruse | March 2, 2011, 4:23 pm
    • But, Jerrid, without the insularity of social media we wouldn’t have so many chances to disagree with one another 😉

      In all seriousness, I’m wishing you the very best. It’s great to see your comments here – thank you!

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 2, 2011, 7:59 pm
  10. Hi Mary Beth. This is a really good blog post – and interesting subject. I wrote a while ago about a similar topic “Echo” – see

    For my part, I was worrying about when government (mine in the UK in particular) come from very similar backgrounds. The density of the connections of the people who lead Britain.

    Here’s a useful academic quote from “Bandwidth and Echo: Trust, Information and Gossip in Social Networks”, published by Ronald S. Burt of University of Chicago and INSEAD in December 2000.

    “The echo hypothesis – based on the social psychology of selective disclosure of informal conversations – says that closed networks do not enhance information flow so much as they create an echo that reinforces predispositions. Information obtained in casual conversations is more redundant than personal experience but not properly discounted, which creates an erroneous sense of certainty. Interpersonal evaluations are amplified to positive and negative extremes. Favorable opinion is amplified into trust. Doubt is amplified into distrust.”

    It’s a lesson for everyone – your Personal Network should not be made up of one group of people. Your judgement will be impaired by the “echo”. You should keep an eye on that – you should have plenty of people with contrary views around you!

    Posted by Phil O'Brien | March 3, 2011, 7:43 am

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,099 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: