If you regularly use Google+, you’ll be aware of the recent introduction of ‘communities’, though the issue I wish to raise is relevant to everyone who reads news and commentary from any sources. This new feature offers the ability to join and read subject-specific groups, whereas users were previously accustomed to following individuals and seeing whatever was on their mind. Now, instead of listening to Charles, Caprice, and Chandelier post about astronomy one minute and gastronomy the next, you can base your content discovery on Chemistry, Cartography and Crochet, and you can also see comments on these subjects from people you don’t otherwise follow due to their enervating personalities. This superficially appealing capability represents what is actually a widespread problem across the internet, whether we’re considering social networks, news websites, forums or aggregators: the compartmentalisation of news and ideas limits the range of things you see to those things which you were already looking for.
So, you’re going to find things that you were hoping to find – how is that bad? Well, it isn’t always, but the trouble with our primate species is that we often act against our better judgement, and, in terms of news consumption, this means that we are far more likely to unknowingly seek to confirm our biases than we are to challenge our opinions. Just take a moment to think of your preferred news sources: when they’re covering something contentious, whether it’s about politics, ethics or pseudoscience, what are the chances that you could guess the author’s opinion before you even see the subtitle? They’re probably pretty high. Sometimes, it can do us good to refine our knowledge and our arguments by deliberately reading about things for which we already have a consolidated outlook, but much of the time we read news for its emotional rather than intellectual content, and the nourishment we feel is illusory. We allow ourselves the sense that we’re educating and informing ourselves despite the fact that we’ve made an implicit pact to turn to sources whose opinions we can predict in advance, meaning that we are never exposed to unconsidered questions and perspectives. This kind of insidious bias is partly the cause of phenomena such as the rampant provincialism of U.S. news.
However, this problem isn’t just confined to controversial political and moral questions; it also affects what we read about human culture and knowledge. If, for example, you join a handful of science-specific communities, or you follow science-specific accounts on twitter, instead of particular scientists each with a range of personal interests, you can be sure that you’ll come across a heap of relevant, enjoyable content, but you can also be sure that you’re never going to see that surprisingly fascinating article about W. H. Auden that Dr. Wigglesworth posted, which you’ll appreciate immensely when you’re in just the right mood to read it, but which you would never have uncovered yourself because you’re not so deeply connected to the world of literature that you’d have ever thought of finding it.
This is why I prefer to follow people rather than topics. I’m able to get a good sense of their character and interests, and while I know what kind of wonderful links and commentary to expect 90% of the time – all part of the initial attraction – I also look forward to that remaining 10% which I’d never have predicted or sought out myself, but which I still enjoy reading. We need that kind of spontaneous discovery. We need to be exposed to the unfamiliar and the unexpected, even if it’s only truly interesting one time out of a hundred. If all our interesting content is redirected from individuals to subject-specific sources, we will inevitably place subtle, unnoticed restrictions on the things that we see, and we will continue to reinforce our prejudiced ideas and interests without thinking.
Personally, I struggle with my own writing, both here and on social networks, because I know that many people who follow me have a select few major interests, while I want to be able to post equally passionately about linguistics and biology and cosmology and classical music and poetry without turning anybody off. I don’t ask you to be interested in all these things, and I’m probably never going to strike a balance that anyone else will think is optimal, but I do at least hope that intelligent, inquisitive individuals will be open to scrolling past a few unappealing posts so that they can eventually read and learn about things outside their usual interests once in a while. By following reliable people rather than rigid topics, you can be reasonably sure that you’ll get something exactly like that.