Social networking is an integral part of the way we live today, but are these networks hindering conversations that should be resolving some of our most important societal challenges?

On this episode of the podcast, Dr. Samantha Goldwater-Adler is joined by journalist and commentator Jen Gerson, who knows first hand how life online can change how we interact with the world. Gerson is the co-host of the podcast OPPO and her work appears in Maclean’s, The Walrus, Quillette, and the CBC.

Goldwater-Adler and Gerson dig into some of the ways that being online can be damaging. They talk not just about the effect on media professionals, but what it might mean for the next generation who are growing up with these tools, and how that might affect their development.

Gerson said she avoids getting in ideological fights online as her profile has grown, because it’s no longer possible to have a nuanced disagreement with people.

“Now I have 17,000 twitter followers, and it just ends up being a dogpile. When you’re in the middle of a dogpile you can’t even respond, you can’t have a conversation, you can’t apologize, you can’t backtrack,” Gerson said. “It winds up having an exponential effect where the more people that get dragged into the dogpile, the more people you’re having a conversation with, the more people get drawn into the fight. There’s nowhere to go from there.”

This may all relate to how much larger our social networking groups are than we might find in the meatspace. Dunbar’s Number, advanced by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is a theory stating that, based on the size of a part of their brain, primates, including humans, have a maximum capacity for the size of their social group. For us people, that number sits at about 150.

To learn a bit more about the Number, you can watch Robin Dunbar’s Ted Talk:

Gerson found that as her following grew, once the number of people she regularly interacted with leapt past that magic 150 number, Twitter became less of a social network and more of a broadcast medium. Not only that but with her increased popularity, she said the people she was interacting with—particularly those hurling abuse—weren’t seeing her as a person, but as a dehumanized avatar.

“They’re not seeing me as a human being who’s hearing those words and getting effectively hurt by them,” she said. “I’ve become in their heads a bogeyman, and that’s what they’re responding to.”

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