Communities, Part 1: The Internet is Too Big

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The other day I was surfing the ‘net and ended up reading an article about the dangers of celebrities promoting weight loss products. The article said something like, “If you spend any time on Instagram, you have seen those appetite-suppressing lollipops all over your feed.” Um, no. I have not. I had never heard of an appetite-suppressing lollipop before, and in any case, they sounded real weird. For the author of this article however, her feed was so inundated with these gross lollipops that she wrote about the phenomenon as if it were ubiquitous.

All of us who use social media perceive the world through a feed that we’ve constructed for ourselves, reflecting our preferences and interests. Actually, it might be more extreme than that: Maybe it’s gotten to the point where we’re no longer viewing the world itself through the distorting lens of our feeds, but that we think what we see in our feeds is the world itself. So we believe that everyone is suppressing their appetites with lollipops, or has heard the latest thing Rush Limbaugh said, or, in my case, is wearing Kamm Pants.

Maybe it’s gotten to the point where we’re no longer viewing the world itself through the distorting lens of our feeds, but that we think what we see in our feeds is the world itself.

Paradoxically, as our personal social networks grow larger than they’ve ever been in history, and as we have access to an unprecedented amount of information and exposure to other ideas and ways of living, our communities have gotten smaller, more insular, more specific. This is because it’s easier than ever to spend our time in a particular, curated universe where everyone wears the same clothes, listens to the same music, and watches the same TV shows. I recently read that the hit show Mad Men, which, in my universe, everyone was watching a few years ago, was only viewed by 1% of the U.S. population at the height of its popularity. And many of us who use Instagram have had the experience of stumbling upon—through some tiny crack in the barrier that separates our little world from the next one—a “celebrity” whom we’ve never heard of but has millions of followers.

The dangers of this siloing of our society get talked about a lot. The walls we build around ourselves are why so many of us were completely shocked by Trump’s election, when we really shouldn’t have been. They’ve been blamed for the erosion of empathy, the rise of fake news, and the dysfunction of our government. These criticisms are fair, and accurate.

But insulating ourselves is also an inevitable reaction to the inhuman scale of the Internet. We have evolved over millennia to be able to maintain lasting social relationships with approximately 150 people, which is far fewer than the number of people most of us follow on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. So it’s natural that we should want to find our special community, one that helps us make sense of—and block out—the overwhelming noise that has become humanly impossible for us to fully take in. We can’t watch all 495 original scripted TV shows that aired in 2018, so it’s natural to want to be part of a group of people who all watch the same 10, so we can talk about them together. We all want to feel that we belong somewhere, and as the ideas, media, and products we have access to proliferate, it’s natural for us to focus on just a small subset of them so our heads don’t explode.

We all want to feel that we belong somewhere.

This is how things are now. We’ll never go back to everyone across the country tuning in to the same nightly news, shopping in the same national department stores, or singing the same commercial jingles. The Internet killed those shared experiences. Whether this shift away from homogeneity is a tragedy or a victory, or both, doesn’t change the fact that we all now live in small, insular communities on a planet that’s more complex, chaotic, and overwhelming than ever before.

This is the first in a three-part series. Next week I’ll share some thoughts about what this segmentation means for marketing a small business. If you want to get notified when that post goes live, make sure you’re on the newsletter! See below. Newsletter subscribers also get early access to new collections, extra deep thoughts (i.e., thoughts that are deep, and also, as the kids say, “extra”), and occasional cat pics.

PS When I originally wrote this post, I used the word “tribe” to refer to the communities of people with a shared experience. If you start reading up on marketing, you will see this word everywhere. But as the day the post was to go live got closer, that word just wasn’t sitting right with me. Check out the saved Instagram story “Words Matter” for more on why I’ve chosen not to use that word in this context.

Margaret HennesseyComment