I spend too little time on Facebook to really care, but Frank Bruni’s reaction to the debate on the algorithm that determines popular trends is instructive. Facebook representatives claim that the lead stories are determined by popularity alone and popularity is determined by numbers. The more Facebook users click on a topic, the higher that topic will rank. However, critics claim that a cavil of Facebook staff actually manipulate the system so that what they consider trend-worthy (read: liberal political views) is ranked higher than numbers alone demand. Frank Bruni, however, sees this entire debate as a red herring. What Facebook users are most interested in is not how trends are ranked but in ensuring that only their cherished views are shared. To Bruni, despite Western civilization’s technological advances, we still remain a tribal society. We want to exclude others we don’t “Like.”
Social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt describes this kind of tribalism is his 2012 best selling book entitled The Righteous Mind. Culturally, people want to spend more time with people like themselves and less time with people who are different. On his view, Facebook amplifies a tendency that already exists. Bruni goes further. His take on the Internet in general is that people gravitate towards views they prefer and seek to have them validated – not questioned – by others. Rather than a source for contrary information that would help refine our views and test our opinions, people are using social media to confirm their views and immediately condemn those who stray from the accepted truth. A similar pattern has emerged in the hallowed halls of universities where in the name of micro-aggression students can censor contrarian ideas. Those who fail to conform to the dogma of the left-wing political agenda are open to condemnation or worse. Our tribalism has generated a program of “illiberal arts” on our college campuses.
So rather than spend time on Facebook, I prefer to spend time studying Talmud where the most outlandish opinions are voiced and not just tolerated but seriously discussed. The give and take of Talmudic passage demonstrates that no opinion is sacrosanct and the most compelling opinion is that which stands up to the most intense scrutiny. The purpose of studying Talmud is not to find confirmation for what you hold to be true but to examine whether that which is thought to be correct actually is. Almost ironically, Talmud study that is held to be so parochial is actually more pluralistic than Facebook.