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When done right, the internet fosters community and engagement

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When done right, the internet fosters community and engagement

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Julia Aldrich | Columnist

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Since the election, tensions online have increased and Facebook posts have become noticeably more political and way more opinionated. But if we can navigate these channels properly, maybe this isn’t a bad thing.

Yes, the upswing in politically-charged posts can be about as irksome as it gets. I couldn’t be more sick of posts on either side — from long, ranting posts by anarchists to shared Tomi Lahren videos. And I have definitely shared my fair number of — probably slightly annoying — political articles in the past few months. But despite all this, social media does something interesting that might not be achievable without sites like Facebook: It provides a community of validation and space to explore and form new ideas.

Social media sites like Facebook provide a medium that allows us to think through and then edit our points while also taking away some of the stressors of debate, like feeling nervous, anxious or inadequate.  

A 2012 psychological study, performed by University of Waterloo psychologist Joanne Wood and Pitt professor Amanda Forest, showed the benefits Facebook can have on people’s willingness to self-disclose, specifically for participants with low self-esteem. The study, which included 80 undergraduates from Waterloo, found that participants who were ranked lower in self-esteem saw Facebook as a safe and supportive space to express themselves, more so than participants who were ranked higher in self-esteem. This result implies that for those who might struggle to connect and voice opinions in daily conversation, social media allows them to join in on various discussions from politics to the news stories to the latest Youtube phenomena.

And for those with social anxiety disorders — about 18 percent of the general population over 18 years old in the United States — the need to avoid social situations and face-to-face interactions makes the internet another option for fostering community and communication.

An Indiana University of Pennsylvania study from 2010 found that interacting online helped to decrease one’s perception of social anxiety. And research published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal in 2005 found that people with social anxiety disorders felt more at ease interacting on the internet than in real-life interactions. For those who wish to engage in important political discussions, but are unable to properly in real life, social media provides a calmer medium for them to express their opinions.

And Facebook’s feature that enables us to easily “like” a post can lead to increased validation. The other day I posted a link to an article by the Odyssey Online titled “I’m a female and I’m So Over Feminists” along with a blurb on why I staunchly disagreed with the author. When almost 50 of my Facebook friends liked it, I felt something similar to righteousness — 50 or so people approved of my thoughts. Any second-guessing of myself immediately vanished as I realized other people shared my views.

According to Facebook, as of 2016, about 1.86 billion people across the globe use the social networking site, and estimates say the average Facebook user’s posts will reach about 60 percent of their friends over the course of a month.

With the ease and accessibility of Facebook and the internet comes drawbacks as well. When we can post and share things freely online, it also means we can become more easily detached from reality. While the debate on whether Facebook helps or hinders our ability to form social skills continues, it also easily allows us to become trapped in our own opinions. We subscribe to the things we like and agree with. When we only pay attention to things that reaffirm our beliefs, instead of challenge them, using the internet for engagement and discussion becomes less helpful.

If you’re more comfortable using social media as your means for political and social engagement, that’s fine — it’s a legitimate choice for communication. But don’t do so in a bubble.

If you have a tendency, like me, to simultaneously scoff and scroll past posts you disagree with, take a moment next time to actually read and contemplate these posts. Perhaps ask the poster a clarification question, or challenge them on a point. This then opens up a dialogue between differently minded people instead of keeping you both encased in your own thoughts.

Make the commitment to engage more actively with opposing beliefs, and seek out spaces where you feel comfortable challenging others and yourself.

People won’t stop using the internet to post their opinions, but we can all work toward making it a more open and engaging place to do so.  

Julia primarily writes about politics and social issues for The Pitt News.

Write to Julia at jla85@pitt.edu.

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When done right, the internet fosters community and engagement