Related to the post yesterday about the power of statistics on college campuses, here is a similar matter: how much do we compare our behavior today to “everyone” or “larger patterns” rather than just family and friends around us?
The connection is not just the Internet and social media and the way they connect us to more people and narratives. This is a change in statistics: we think we can see larger patterns and we can access more information.
Whether what we see on social media is a real pattern might not matter. (A reminder: relatively few people are active on Twitter.) We see more online and we can see what people are highlighting. This might appear as a pattern.
Not too long ago, we were more limited in our ability to compare our actions to others. The mass media existed but in more packaged forms (television, radio, music, films, newspapers, etc.) rather than the user-driven content of social media. The comparisons to that mass media still mattered – I remember sociologist Juliet Schor’s argument in The Overspent American of how increased TV watching was related to increased consumption – but people’s ties to their family and friends in geographic proximity were likely stronger. Or, in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone world, people spent a lot more time in local organizations and groups rather than in the broad realms of the Internet and social media.
Now, we can easily see how our choices or circumstances compare to others. Even odd situations we find ourselves in quickly be matched across a vast set of platforms for similarities and differences. Whether our tastes are mainstream or unusual, we can see how they stack up. If I am on college campus X on one side of the country, I can easily see what is happening on college campuses around the world.
Even as the Internet and social media is not fully representative of people and society, it does offer a sample regarding what other people are doing. We may care less about what the people directly near us are doing and we can quickly see what broader groups are doing. We can live our everyday lives with a statistical approach: look at the big N sample and adjust accordingly.