Sailing Social Media Seas

Snelgraphix Designing Minds Blog: Exploring An Ocean of Other People’s Ideas

Gustave Doré's illustration to Dante's Inferno. Plate IX: Canto III: Arrival of Charon. "And lo! towards us coming in a boat / An old man, hoary with the hair of eld, / Crying: 'Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!' •  Wiki Commons

Gustave Doré's illustration to Dante's Inferno. Plate IX: Canto III: Arrival of Charon. "And lo! towards us coming in a boat / An old man, hoary with the hair of eld, / Crying: 'Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!' • Wiki Commons

The prior entry in this series can be read by clicking this link: It's All About Belief

My Cyberspace Odyssey

An anthropological travelogue by Patrick DelVecchio.

I was a man with a mission. I spent the last five years immersing myself in online culture. Professional concerns motivated my journey. I wanted to further develop my communication skills, to get a better idea about how other people think and why they believe what they do. What they believe was not my concern. I sought to improve my ability to create communication design solutions for any audience, so I thought it a good idea to undertake an online odyssey that would require I join a single chosen social media community and learn as much as I could about this group of people, firsthand. I was embarking on an online anthropological survey.

I had to do this while navigating being a husband, parent to young children (a time-consuming rollercoaster adventure in itself), and having responsibilities at Snelgraphix, so I chose one area of the internet to study. I knew I would need to be patient and that I would not have immediate results. I knew it would take time to get where I wanted to go, informationally speaking. I chose an area I felt would prove robust enough to provide more than enough social media data for my needs. I figured focusing on one social media demographic and developing a single online identity appropriate to that community the best course of action. I didn’t want to confuse myself by playing multiple roles for multiple audiences at once. In general, I’d rather avoid having to sail through Scylla and Charybdis, helming a single social media enterprise would prove difficult enough.

I would also use this virtual voyage as an opportunity to develop skills in areas of interest I had not previously explored. This would include plenty of research, writing, theatrical performance and improvisation. I ended up learning a lot about method acting. Adopting a role and acting it out was something I only did as a kid when I played Dungeons and Dragons. Here I was some decades later role-playing in an artistic cybernetic adventure of my own devising.

Making a good number of mistakes along the way, I learned from both error and success.

I will leave everything anonymous and general as the point of this endeavor was to learn about human behavior in general, so that I could adapt what I learned to other social demographics. Let me just state this before continuing further; almost all of the people I encountered online, both the content creators and audience, were friendly, intelligent, creative, talented and funny, but my purpose was not to make internet friends. Nor was my intent to study specific beliefs with regards to what makes sense and what does not. My aim was to learn why people believe what they do, and how they communicate their beliefs with each other and with the general public.

Every social group has leaders, trusted influencers who give voice to the supposed majority opinion, so I began observing what this community’s lead content creators were doing. I learned a lot from these observations. And I began to emulate some of their practices.

I also learned that people have a variety of belief systems, some more grounded than others, and that very few of us can truly claim any belief high ground. Some of us have moral compasses at polar odds with each other. And many of us believe in things we might want to take another look at, but I digress; I learned that few of us want to read about ideas that challenge the fundamental beliefs we hold, so I will avoid going there. I learned that many of us take comfort in group opinion by relying on this opinion to act as a substitute for evidence that a particular belief is true. This example of circular reasoning appears to replace demonstrable or logical ideas for many of us. The majority opinion might actually be incorrect, but it doesn’t make a difference. Equally unimportant is whether or not a particular belief is actually the majority opinion in the first place. In other words, I learned that in general, we tend to believe in the things we think other people believe because we tend to think that 4 out of 5 people can’t possibly be wrong, despite the historical fact that the majority opinion is not always right.

None of this has anything to do with what is true and what is false, and everything to do with human perception. What I learned is that our behavior is not usually motivated by a rational assessment of factual information. Far from it. In fact, if a majority of the community influencers express the same idea repeatedly, the group will accept and adopt the idea without the need for any kind of demonstrable proof or logical argument. The favored idea becomes conventional wisdom. As history shows, conventional wisdom is what generally steers human behavior. Many of us accept the seal of approval from an official body as evidence that an idea is true without understanding why that idea is true. The socially divisive nature of national politics illustrates what I mean. People are simply more interested in how ideas make them feel than in actually understanding why their ideas are right, or why their ideas are wrong.