When people hear the word ‘digital,’ they often assume it refers to devices and online platforms. But, it’s more than just that. These devices (our phones, iPads and laptops) are interwoven with our culture, creating an interconnected and networked society rather than a hierarchical and divided one. There’s even a new term for it now: ‘digital culture,’ which revolves around the transformation of culture through the mediation of technology, devices and social media.
Social media has played a huge role in shaping our modern-day culture. In the Arab world, the Gulf region carries the highest penetration rates in social media over platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. Furthermore, out of all the Arab countries, the Arabian Gulf states have the most daily active users.
When users are exposed to different cultures and perspectives through photos, online campaigns or activism, events and discussions, they learn more about others’ opinions, experiences and cultures. There’s also the interesting rise of social media influencers, bloggers and vloggers who document food, travel, fashion, makeup, lifestyle and startup founders in the Gulf, different people around the region as well as the world. This helps viewers learn more about the different customs and lifestyles of others.
The important elements that drive social media and our daily online experiences (i.e. what appears on our newsfeed, and what we are able to see on our Instagram’s explore page) are algorithms: step-by-step procedures used for calculations, data processing and automated reasoning typically conducted by computers.
Nowadays, massive media and Internet corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all employ built-in algorithms to run their networks. So, for example, when you are on Twitter, Twitter’s algorithms will find patterns regarding who you “follow” and will then suggest new accounts for you to follow based on that information.
This may sound great in theory; these algorithms do the work for us and introduce us to pages it thinks we might like. But when Google is able to complete our searches for us, when Facebook suggests specific groups or friends to connect with and when Instagram’s explore page knows your location and who you follow, it’s concerning to think about where these algorithms may lead us.
In other words, our personalised news feeds on Google or other social media platforms can encapsulate us into what is known as the ‘filter bubble‘ or the ‘echo chamber,’ because it detects our interests and preferences based on our friends, location, posts, likes and overall online social activity. We become trapped inside our own narrow bubble of corresponding views. It’s is a chamber that engulfs us inside our own echoes. At the end of the day, these algorithms have the potential to re-immerse us into our own worlds rather than allowing social media to open us up to new worlds or online experiences.
Consider this scenario – a middle-aged, Saudi man in Riyadh has accounts across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, whereby he follows his likeminded male Saudi colleagues, some influencers in Saudi or the region and a few famous football players. On the other hand, a young Kuwaiti female in her early 20s has accounts on similar platforms, but follows people who are relevant to and interest her, such as her female friends, beauty and fashion bloggers who are Gulf natives or from other regions like the US or the UK.
Given the two hypothetical examples, would it be reasonable for those two users to have the same ads, suggested groups or content on their homepages? The answer is no, and that is why algorithms exist. The result? One side of the Gulf may be open to viewing different worlds and different people because they follow a diverse list of people and accounts, while another side may find satisfaction in having their own views reaffirmed, since they only follow accounts of those with similar outlooks and interests.
Although it is still possible to stumble upon a totally random user who is not personally relevant, the issue is that algorithms narrow down these chances.
Therefore, there is a paradox in having social media platforms that are meant to introduce us to diversity and provide us with knowledge about others, whilst simultaneously including algorithms that narrow our options and keep us in our individualized worlds, leaving no room to learn about others or be exposed to something outside of our comfort zones.
That said, I believe we as users should be more open and careful when choosing which accounts to follow; we should diversify our options and not just stick to one limited group that only corresponds with our views. That way, we give have a better chance of exposing ourselves to pages where we can engage with different types of people, cultures and places. Nonetheless, this does not mean we should solely rely on social media to expose us to other views and cultures. We should also use the old-school methods to learn about cultures, for example, by physically going out and being ‘there.’
Dana Damanhouri is a Saudi digital consultant and composer.