SocialMedia affords an “us vs. them” world view for its users. Why is that? There’s an implied punishment and reward cycle in all social media that widens the gap between us.

Punishment. This is the ridicule, the take downs, the nay saying. Most people are uncomfortable when contradicted. People feel the need to change the situation, to either withdraw what they said, or to vigorously defend what they said, or to mute or block the offending party. Internet strangers in your mentions! A terrible thought.

Reward. This is the tiny dopamine rush of momentary satisfaction we get when people agree with us, sharing our words, liking our words, positively commenting on our words, recommending our feeds, our sites, our posts, our comments. We feel so important! A wonderful thought.

The mechanisms and terms for these two effects can vary: sharing, liking, boosting, starring, loving, fave-ing (marking as a favourite), commenting. Sometimes there are also indirect measures: follower count, post count, variously called reach, or clout.

Some people eschew these effects and build systems where some of these actions are impossible:

Widening the gap. That is, a punishment and reward cycle drives us all to more and more extreme behaviour. No matter along which axis we divide the world (oil vs. solar, left vs. right), we curate our feed such that we see more intelligent people on our side discussed and lifted up, and more dumb people on their side ridiculed and put down. Us vs. them.


As noted by Shamus Young (see below), this goes beyond ConfirmationBias, because confirmation bias is what happens when we see information that confirms what we already believe. The punishment and reward cycle of social media makes sure that confirmation bias is promoted.

Or, as Shamus Young puts it:

I no longer have to go to the trouble of fooling myself. We’ve invented software to automate and industrialize the process, and then added a scoring system so that the masses will constantly bring it fresh fuel. It’s a system of rules with the emergent property of creating a continuous flow of crowd-sourced propaganda. We’ve gameified tribal bigotry. – This Game is Bad for You, Shamus Young, 2018

See Also

Just like the score in Asteroids tells you your goal is to kill ships and asteroids – and not simply to fly around in circles dodging stuff forever – the mechanics … push you into behaviors you might never otherwise engage in. They also intensify the existing social rewards for negative behaviors. While not part of the deliberate design of the system, these behaviors are actually kind of insidious. … If the world starts looking clear cut, us-vs-them, and good-vs-evil, then you’ve probably drank more social media than is good for you. Behind all those silly names and joke icons are real human beings with real feelings. Some of them are nasty and some of them are nice, and if you condemn all for the actions of a few then you’ll lose your ability to see any of them clearly. – This Game is Bad for You, Shamus Young, 2018


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