How The Filter Bubble Cost Feminists This Election

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Felicity Sargent is a writer, stylist, and digital consultant. The views expressed here are her own.

In the days and weeks before the election, how many posts did you see from people who had radically different views than you? How many did you read?

I'm betting not so many.

While we watched our now president-elect discuss building walls, we failed to notice that we'd
each been building our own digital walls for a long time now.

In the name of enhancing discovery and connection, social media has helped us build barricades that both intentionally and algorithmically block viewpoints from people that make us uncomfortable — and I think the sheer shock of this election has made us all realize that the bubble is real.

While we watched our now president-elect discuss building walls, we failed to notice that we'd each been building our own digital walls for a long time now.

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The morning after the election, like so many of us, I woke up feeling unbelievably dazed and bemused.

I took to Instagram, writing: "If you’re seeing this, you likely didn’t vote for Trump. Let this *surprise* be a reminder that your feed is not the world and that we need to make an effort to see beyond our bubbles, even though media, social and otherwise, can make that very difficult. It’s also a reminder that now, more than ever, we need real life. We need actual physical, in-person experiences. We need to speak words, with our voices, to beings that breathe."

I now realize that I was channeling something old — an unfinished thought piece drafted but never published, provisionally titled, “The Theory of Everyone.” I had tapped it out in a flustered rage while walking away from a meeting where someone was maniacally raving about how “everyone” felt the same way about a meme, app, influencer — I can’t remember which, and it doesn’t matter.

The words were about how quickly the room had accepted one person’s “theory of everyone.” A conference-sized table full of smart people confidently agreed that “everyone” believed something, that a belief was universal, based on anecdotes from the most senior person’s social feed. It was like the Bay of Pigs meets The Social Network.

Isn’t it clear that the images and opinions in our feeds are typically the most vocal and followed voices in our own networks?

Until I said, “I actually have no idea who or what you are talking about.”

For the record, this was not received well. When I questioned some of their assumptions and asked whether they might be stuck in some sort of “capsule of cool,” the rest of the room grew awkward and kind of defensive.

And I don't think I was saying anything particularly discomforting. I was simply making the point that perceptions based on curated feeds are designed to reflect the images of their curators.

Isn’t it clear that the images and opinions in our feeds are typically the most vocal and followed voices in our own networks? And isn’t it obvious that that’s just a small fraction of a big blue (or red) ocean of people?

Turns out that’s not obvious at all. Case in point: the Trump stump. It wasn’t until the morning after the election that our bubbles burst and we all suddenly became budding bubbleologists.

It's time for real-life conversations with people who are not in our social networks or circles of friends, where no one can be blocked.

So, what can we do to make sure we’re not blindsided again?

I’m not sure, but I know it starts with talking to the people whom we can’t find in our feeds —talking to them about their values and their needs, framing our similarities and our differences, coming together where we can and respecting dissent when we can’t. But most of all, it starts by remembering that we are all nothing more and nothing less than infinitely connected human beings.

It's time for real-life conversations with people who are not in our social networks or circles of friends, where no one can be blocked. We need debates where comments can't be deleted, and where we are forced to exercise empathy in living time. We need to talk about the people and ideas that make us we feel uncomfortable. We need to not just click it all away or leave a thread because it gets out of control.

We need to come out from behind our digital avatars and our niche communities that are generally supportive of everything we have to say because their voices are the voices we have chosen, the voices that hear our words with open minds.

It's uncomfortable. It's awkward. It's painful. And our future depends on it.
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