One one level, it’s pretty simple: Humans are social creatures. Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, we all have deep instincts to connect with others. Whether we feel sad and frustrated, or happy, or maybe if just come up with an exciting new idea, we often want to share those experiences with someone else.
Whether the emotions are positive or negative, most of the time we’re simply looking for validation, and our search for shared experience affects how we move about the world. In many of our IRL conversations and interactions, we make decisions about what we want people to know about us. That’s reflected in myriad ways: the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the car we drive (or our choice not to drive), and all the other non-verbal cues we send out. We decide what is private and what is public.
In a very real sense, we are performing. And the “performance” is all about the personal boundaries we set between that which is private and that which is public. After all, being vulnerable is to put ourselves at risk.
What’s so unusual about social media, though, is that we are now performing under exaggerated conditions. The online environment puts everyone of us on stage. As a species, we are not conditioned to socialize through a digital intermediary, and the rules online are totally different. We may think we’re making a similar set of decisions about how we’re presenting ourselves, but we’re actually operating in a reduced cue environment. We are sending social signals with far fewer tools at our disposal. We can’t use eye contact, body language, or slightly shift the tone of our speech. Nuance is easily lost, and the information we transmit is incomplete. As a result, it’s very easy for social media platforms to amplify both our similarities and our differences – and to take advantage of our need to perform.
It’s hard to know to what extent social media has created new forms of tribalism, but at the very least, social media exacerbates tribalism. Social media platforms profit from our attention, and the best way to keep us engaged is by appealing to our emotional desires – or our need for social connection and affirmation. So it is only natural that online platforms are designed to make it feel like the stakes are high. On a very personal level, the stakes do feel high. But by signing up to participate online, we are adopting the values of the companies that have create the rules about how we are meant to perform. And, of course, it is very much in the interest of the social media companies that we surrender our privacy so they can profit from our data.
One of the many problems here is that the emotional engagement of online interactions often comes at the expense of rational engagement. If we perceive that our needs are not being met, or, to put it another way, if we are not getting the necessary validation for our online performances, the temptation is to doubledown so that we do get that validation. In that way, we become even more committed to finding our tribe. We all want to belong somewhere, so a different part of our brain takes over. But increasingly, it seems, that sense of belonging may be coming at the expense of others feeling (or actually being) welcome in our space. And so the vicious cycle continues and builds....
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