We're living in the social era. We've been ushered in through the ubiquitous use of social collaboration tools, mobile devices and humongous amounts of big data. Many of us source information, companionship, entertainment, news, or business opportunities from our personal digital collectives. We use Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat—and whatever technology was invented yesterday—to make simple human connections through electronic interactions.
And who can blame us? With 24/7 information overload and a fractured media landscape, it's nearly impossible to gain context and perspective quickly or easily on our own. Instead, with a few clicks, we turn to the people we trust to derive meaning: the ones in our ever-ready, always-on social networks.
Unfortunately, these friendly voices can start to sound like an echo chamber in a virtual gated community. The problem isn't who we are connecting to, but what they are saying, over and over and over again. While social tools give the appearance of bringing diverse people together, they may be promoting some old-fashioned groupthink, which only serves to keep us apart.
The promise is there. Sites such as Kickstarter, which funds interesting creative projects, or CaringBridge, which shares information about loved ones and caregivers, are great examples. Medical portals have become standard for sharing information about diagnoses and care. Social tools help rural high school students conduct research around the world or take specialized courses. There are numerous digital tools like these that have made peoples' lives better.
For politicians there is plenty to like about the social era. Fundraising campaigns, events and general communications are promoted through Eventbrite, Facebook, and Twitter. Social tools help candidates get the word out about their platforms, policies, and poll numbers. A savvy social campaign helped bring President Obama to power.
In this political season, Senator Bernie Sanders seems to be a natural beneficiary of the social era. Would democratic socialism have met with as much acceptance if we were not in the social era? It's more than a matter of "social" being at the root of "socialism." Sanders believes in creating greater, more egalitarian connections among people. He argues that the top 1 percent are disconnected from the rest of us and that this growing separation of haves and have nots is destructive to our political, corporate and social institutions.
Donald J. Trump is reaping social era benefits too. It's easier than ever to stoke anger, outrage and fear among like-minded groups who are fed up with our political institutions. Empty slogans, hate speech and misinformation can be shared and promoted as easily as factual information—and with the warp speed and repetition that digital technology offers.
There is a case to be made that Trump's campaign has used the tools of the social era to promote authoritarianism and nationalism. But who has time to think about the bigger picture of political philosophy when breaking news pops like popcorn: fast, random, and innocuous until gathered in impressive quantities.
We can't blame the tools. The social era is only as enhancing or destructive as we make it. What's a shiny new technology to do but strut its stuff?
It may be possible that our social era is simply having an identity crisis as it unspools far beyond the realm of social media. It's in its adolescence after all. Maybe we just have to train it. At its best, the social era can help us collectively solve problems and share ideas in productive ways; it also has the capacity to encourage people to act like sheep, following a destructive path in agitated collectives, never bothering to look up and think for themselves before falling off a cliff.
For now, the social era is creating the backdrop for the exaggerated polarization that marks our current U.S. political season. To borrow from Forrest Gump, social is as social does. It's too soon to know exactly what we'll get.