Time magazine published an article titled ‘Social Media is Making You Stupid’ (February 21, 2014) based on findings from a new study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The study was concerned with the transfer of information through networks, particularly social media networks, and the effects it may have on the individuals within them. This study concluded that highly connected networks share information the most efficiently (due to the number of links between members of those networks) through a study where a group of 100 people were split into 20 person social networks connected in various patterns (one extreme where all were connected, the other where all members were isolated) and asked to answer a series of questions. The members of the networks were asked the questions five times; the first time they had to answer the questions on their own, but for the rest they were able to copy their neighbor’s answer. This experiment was used to show how the more highly connected one is to other sources of information, the more easily available that information is (the more highly connected social networks were better at answering the questions the more times they were asked/able to copy their neighbor’s answers), but it also shows that gaining information in this way does not necessarily display understanding of the information that is gained through highly connected social networks.
The article claims that social media has a similar effect; pieces of information are constantly being passed through social media, members of those networks are gaining information, but they are not necessarily gaining the analytic skills to discover that information on their own. Thus, using social media “may very well decrease the frequency of analytical reasoning by making it easy and commonplace for people to reach analytical response without engaging analytical processing”.
This article appears to address the concepts of selection and social context/socialization that we discussed in class by looking at some of the implications of that transfer of information. In the experiment, the way that one could copy the answer of their neighbor when answering the questions is an example of a kind of socialization where one adopts the behavior (answer) of their neighbor, while the choice of copying one neighbor’s answer over another is an example of selection. But the experiment discussed raises interesting questions about the kind of superficial quality that information dispersed through networks can assume. In the case of information shared on social media sites (whether it be political, economic, social, etc.), networks of often highly connected individuals, members are exposed to a huge amount of information that may be retained in a similar way to the copying of a neighbor’s answer in the experiment. So, while information may travel far and wide throughout a well-connected network, the processes leading to that information may be left untouched; leading to a lack of understanding of those processes. This raises interesting questions concerning selection and socialization, as individuals within a highly informed and highly connected network (social media) may appear to be getting smarter due to the availability of information, but in reality they may only appear to be getting smarter as they are simply undergoing the process of selecting options from their highly informed social context; the information is made available to members of social networks but they may, in this exchange of information, not actually gain an understanding of that information. Members of highly informed and connected networks are able to absorb a large number of facts, without learning the analytic processes leading to those ‘facts’; a superficial knowledge of facts appears to be one of the possible results of these kind of highly connected and highly informed networks. Interesting.