September 30, 2020

Beware of the Mirror

applying lipstick

Have you ever stood in front of a large mirror and looked into it for a minute or two? Of course you have. We all have. And what did you see the last time you did so? You saw your reflection. This is not quite the same thing as seeing ourselves the way others see us, but it is probably as close as we are going to get. After all, our perception of ourselves is very different from our we are perceived by others.

Imagine for a moment that your mirror was capable of showing more than just a reflection of your physical self. Suppose that it could also show you something about the sort of person you were. In addition to your physical appearance, it might convey your interests and your values. It might capture something about how you treated others and even your overall impact in the world. That would be a pretty cool trick.

I believe that relatively few people using social media these days are in search of real diversity in terms of who they follow and/or friend; more seem to be in search of magic mirrors. They may not try to follow or friend people who look like them, but it certainly seems like most are looking for those who reflect their interests and values. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it can be somewhat limiting if it is overdone. We can end up creating an artificial online world that bears little resemblance to reality but has the power to fool us into thinking that it is real.

To avoid this trap, it is important that we seek out people who are different from us in meaningful ways. Many of us already seek people with different life experiences because we recognize how valuable that can be. Far fewer of us seek those with very different interests and/or values. In fact, I see many people going out of their way to broadcast that they want nothing to do with large groups of people specifically because they have different values (e.g., "MAGAs blocked").

When I think back to the traumatic reactions some liberals experienced immediately following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I suspect that the way they had designed an artificial world by excluding everyone who disagreed with them was a big part of why. The outcome was not just more surprising than it should have been; it was disruptive of the false "reality" they had created. And of course, politics is far from the only example of this.

The allure of the mirror is obvious. If someone else shares my interests, I am going to find them more interesting. We can talk about things that excite both of us. If someone else shares my values, I am bound to feel more comfortable being myself around them. These are valuable experiences, and the issue here is not that we shouldn't have them. The problem only enters when we exclude everyone else to the point that we create something which is deceptively artificial.

One of the best things about social media is that we have access to so many fascinating people all over the world, many of whom are doing some incredibly cool things. Some do share our interests and values, but many do not. By connecting with some of those who do not, we expose ourselves to the possibility of growth. We may learn something from them, or we may simply discover something cool we would have otherwise missed.

Some of the people I follow on Twitter are into some pretty weird stuff, and I love it. I think the world would be incredibly boring without the weird, unconventional, blasphemous, etc. I don't always share their interests or their values, but I often find myself appreciating some aspect of what they are doing. On the other hand, I find those whose profiles brag that they will block anyone who varies from whatever they have deemed acceptable are some of the least interesting people around.