Twitter, Facebook break illusion of understanding

Alfredo Villaseñor

With the intent of broadening my knowledge of social networking sites, I recently decided to get my very own Twitter account. I’ve been following writers, comedians, hacker groups, news organizations and the queen of England, trying to get some insight into the thoughts and workings of today’s internet-goers. But despite my ethnographic aims, Twitter has left me just as clueless about people as I was before. Here’s a recent tweet by a sick Neil Gaiman that I feel sums up the bafflement brought on by Twitter: “If horrible brownygreen snotgunk was incredibly valuable and rare, I would be the richest man in the world.”

The grossness aside, when I first read this tweet from Gaiman, I couldn’t help but scrunch my eyebrows and scratch my head about it because this man had nothing in common with the favorite author I had so long imagined. Before, my image of him was of a lonely, abstinent man living in a basement, writing strange and horrific stories and occasionally going out at night for mischief and inspiration. To think that he could have a wife, three kids, two dogs and a house in Minnesota: or that he could have the downtime to post something mundane on the internet! His tweets taught me that there was an embarrassing lot of stuff that I didn’t know about him or anyone else for that matter.

It turns out that I was (or am) suffering from a cognitive bias called the illusion of asymmetric insight. It’s the condition of thinking that you understand people a lot better than they understand you, and it results in a tendency to categorize everyone: everyone but yourself. This bias gives us the idea that we can use a few words to encompass someone’s personality, having as little information as that from a single observation. Whether it’s their major, religious beliefs or frat house, there are as many labels that we’ve assigned as there are people we know, yet we never think of ourselves as belonging to any of those labels. Even if a label fits you, you don’t have it define you the way you have it define someone else because you know that there’s more to you than that. We are the complex and mysterious outside observers while everyone else is so neatly sorted out into our thought-up classifications.

A twist to the illusion is the way social networking sites have magnified it by letting us project the bits about ourselves that we want people to see. We’re not drawn to sites like Facebook just because we want to keep in touch with friends; we’re also very interested in giving everyone a show, a portrait of ourselves that is satisfying. As a result, we take in the information that’s been put up, and we come up with classifications for everyone. Then all of a sudden we think we’re experts on the people we’ve observed, knowing that whatever information they have on us hasn’t even scratched the surface.

So it’s a bias that everyone has, and it probably makes our social interactions easier. I would think that if we didn’t have it, we’d have to recite a whole person’s biography in our heads every time we’d bump into that person. But it’s also a big part of what makes us very good at belittling people, very good at forgetting the depth that every mind possesses. Whether it’s an evolutionary adaptation that promotes competition or the price of being sentient, or both, I don’t really know, and I don’t think we can fix it, either. But why does everything need a solution? I think it would be just fine to look into someone’s eyes and remember that this person is, in fact, a giant, an ocean of thoughts and secrets.+