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Columns

Breaking out of Digital Sameness

Alone Together

By Elizabeth S. Ling, Contributing Opinion Writer
Elizabeth S. Ling ’23 is a Computer Science concentrator in Eliot House. Her column, “Alone Together,” appears on alternating Fridays.

Social media generates uniformity. While scrolling through social media feeds, it often looks like the whole world is following a particular trend, especially when a sentiment is duplicated by multiple independent posts. On my YouTube feed, for example, everyone is moving to New York. On Sidechat, everyone loved the HUDS Diwali dinner. Other niche digital communities range from Alabama Rush TikTok to culture around specific Twitch streamers.

Although we each inhabit a distinct digital space — after all, they’re individually curated and tailored by an algorithm — these spaces overlap surprisingly often. This is because recommendation algorithms and virality promote homogeneity by providing limited choice. When Spotify makes personalized playlists, it’s really an algorithm choosing the music, which often comes down to specific, exploitable metrics like rhythm or even the artist’s gender. Artists know that a song needs to perform well on Tiktok to blow up, so today’s Billboard hits increasingly sound the same. In turn, hit songs last longer and reach more people because millions of listeners rely on algorithmic recommendations daily. In this data-driven cycle, whatever captures user attention wins, creating what some call a “streaming monoculture”.

Beyond generating a broad monoculture, social media also has a deeper function of collectivizing niche communities by relating to inner thoughts. Personally, I like aesthetic, slice-of-life TikToks with reflections about living mindfully as a young adult. Watching these videos feels as if I’m listening to a close friend speak, but in reality, many have tens or hundreds of thousands of views. These seemingly deep, personal reflections become widespread ideas in the collective consciousness, so even our deepest ideologies are influenced and homogenized. This collectivizing function enables an alternative to the natural sphere of family and local community that is flexible, modern, and hyperconnected. In this new social world, individuals choose social communities that understand them and are no longer limited by a local community consensus.

This is how trends like “that girl” become an entire self-sustaining tenet of popular culture. (If you’re unfamiliar, “that girl” involves a productive, healthy lifestyle of waking up at 5 or 6 a.m., going to the gym and making an oat milk latte before starting your workday, and so on.) Each idea feels like a relatable lifestyle or opinion, but the trend has attracted millions of people: 16-year-olds striving for it, smaller creators imitating it, and brands marketing to it.

For individuals who don’t live around others striving for this lifestyle, the limitation of physical community is removed. On their smartphone, each person can access others with similar thoughts, feelings, goals, and struggles, and it’s suddenly possible to pursue a very specific lifestyle that drastically differs from their present environment by drawing from the comfort of a digital community. Social media can create communities out of these separate pockets of like-minded people, overcoming the pluralistic ignorance that leads people to ignore the fact that others like them exist. Once someone enters a subculture, the digital content ultimately shapes their physical world, and it becomes a tangible facet of life through repeated exposure to social media.

In itself, shared ideas and digital subcommunities aren’t evil. They arguably accomplish the exact purpose of social media by connecting like-minded people worldwide over shared interests to supportive communities and relevant resources. At the same time, however, they’re creating a pervasive monoculture in popular culture and our inner thoughts and attitudes. For a society that claims to value depth and diversity of thought, algorithms and social media won’t lead us there.

Even on an individual level, homogeneity of thought is ultimately harmful to our sense of connection. Algorithms operate solely on popularity and data, which means directing users towards similar others. There’s no incentive for a recommendation algorithm to provide you with a short-term challenge or discomfort that eventually pays off in a long-term perspective shift, and algorithms don’t optimize for that kind of gratification. Ultimately, we as passive users are harmed if we are unable to connect with different people in the offline world. As curators of our own social communities in the hyper-connected world, we bear responsibility for supplementing online connection to similar people with challenging, in-person connection to our local communities. Otherwise, we risk losing community-based connection altogether.

Most people on public transit or in public spaces look at their phones when encountering others. Even at Harvard, the norm is social segregation and forming like-minded friends through clubs and sports, which is a natural reflection of human psychology to group together. However, if we have a desire to build deeper communal connections past the algorithm-created monoculture, we have to change our passive approach to an active one.

Lately, I’ve been surprised by the amount of unpredictable, beautiful interactions I can have with strangers and people I typically wouldn’t talk to. Often, a barista or a tourist on the T has a lot to share. During these interactions, I find that they’re not complete strangers — they inhabit the same world I do, they like the same sports teams and hiking trails, they have opinions on cities that I’ve always wanted to visit because they’ve lived there for years. There’s a lot to learn from the world out there.

Elizabeth S. Ling ’23 is a Computer Science concentrator in Eliot House. Her column, “Alone Together,” usually appears on alternating Fridays.

Elizabeth S. Ling ’23
Elizabeth S. Ling ’23

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