In the past decade or so, I’ve seen some interesting things happen. Some have been awesome, funny or even absurd.  Others have been memorable for much more somber reasons.  One common thread that ties all of these events together in recent history has been how my friends, family and acquaintances have responded to these events.  I remember a time when we actually talked about things.  If we couldn’t talk face to face because of distance or time constraints, we may have even called each other to talk about things, if we felt strongly enough about it.

Then this little thing came along called social media.  In my mind and among my group of friends, this started first with instant messaging.  We didn’t have profile pages or websites, just a little icon showing us when our friends were online.  Eventually, among my group of friends and family we joined Myspace  made our profile pages, posted our cover song and stressed about which friends to put into our top eight.  People would post on your page, and it was kind of a novelty. 

When the original Myspace began to die out, we mass migrated over to Facebook   Facebook provided us a set template and more of a focus than Myspace   It became much more like a journal of your life which your ‘friends’ could follow.  People would post their photos on their profile, along with little updates about their life, how they were feeling and what they were doing at the time.  It all started so innocently, but we let it become something else.  Something much more divisive and… dare I say…. anti-social.

That is a pretty long history of my experience with social media, but it has an important purpose.  We put so much time and effort into our social media profiles, developing a social media personality, that we immediately begin to feel threatened if someone with a contrasting view or activity starts to clog up our wall or news feed with opposing viewpoints or activities.

This is the underlying problem with the debate about gun control right now.  I think that it is obvious that something needs to be done, and both sides would acknowledge that, but we’ve lost the middle ground.  In my social networks, I have an interesting mix of ideologies amongst my friends.  One of my roommates is very staunch on his attitude that Obama will be dissolving the 2nd amendment completely and we must hoard all the weapons and ammunition we can so that we can fight against the government when the time arrives.  I laughed at this idea until I realized he was 100% serious.  His attitude of paranoia is honestly that one day the government will be at war with the people and will have an advantage because they’ll have the automatic weapons and the only thing we’ll be able to have as citizens are muzzle-loaders.  There is no doubt that social media has influenced his opinion on this issue: he follows Fox News exclusively, his friends and family are from a very small town Southern Utah and a good majority of his friends are right-wing republicans.  None of these things are ‘bad’, however the things he sees on his news feed are going to be extremely weighted towards one side of the issue.  Whenever he logs in, most of the things he sees posted will be in accord with his ideology  and anything to the contrary will look like an attack from (what he calls) a ‘vocal minority’.

Here’s the thing.  Those people contrary to his opinion aren’t a ‘vocal minority’.  They are definitely vocal, but far from a minority.  A poll from John Hopkins’ School of Public Heath discovered the following:

A national survey of 2,703 respondents found 89 percent support universal background checks; 69 percent support banning the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons; 68 percent support banning the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Since the Sandy Hook shooting, there has been numerous polls and surveys conducted, showing very similar results (take a look at this overview here).

The most important thing to remember is that when it comes to the opinions we are exposed to online, we are our own personal gatekeepers.  If I get frustrated with something someone says, I can un-follow them, block them, hide there posts and do whatever I want to steer away from having conflict on my profile page.  If I were to pull a Martin Luther and post these surveys on my friends Facebook wall, him and every person he follows would begin to swarm me with facts, figures and opinion contrary to that of my own.  It doesn’t mean that either of us would be right, but the effect of the spiral of silence theory would be evident.

As I examine my own social media networks, the calls to action from both sides are evident.  Among my friends and family on Facebook, the discussion is very one-sided towards keeping gun laws the way they are; blaming gun violence directly on the people involved, the president and generally ignoring the root of the issue.  This side is fueled by a perceived threat and a paranoia.  Inversely, other more left wing social networks which I frequent are one-sided in taking all guns away, blaming the violence on the fact that people can get these guns and are fueled by a seemingly knee-jerk perception of all people who own guns are crazy nut jobs who target shoot every day and are otherwise hermits who hoard guns.

The role of technological determinism should not be ignored in the debate about guns either.  I do not believe that either side would deny that guns have evolved significantly since the founding of our country.  There was a time (not that long ago) where it was much more expensive to own a gun.  Because of advances in our factories and materials research, the price of guns and ammunition has dropped.  The appearance of online gun retailers and gun trades show how easy it is to obtain one of these weapons.  Guns are no longer for hunting animals, but they are precision instruments designed to kill.  The guise is that the precision is for target shooting and the like, but that is what a gun is designed to do in the end: kill.

This meme was posted on a friends facebook wall.  Interesting visualization of this debate.

When it comes down it, neither side is correct.

The calls to action from both sides are driven by a misunderstanding of the other side.  There is information out there, but because we act as gatekeepers of our social connections, we inevitably (and most of the time, unknowingly) tend to choose people and media that agree with our opinions.  I believe that we all start out in the middle, but with the opinions and arguments exposed to us on social media we start to migrate towards one side or the other.  Washington can try to make laws that will fix the problem, but because our elected officials are worried about re-election they will inevitably cater to those lobbying on either side of this highly polarized issue.

I don’t have an answer to gun violence and gun control.  I’m still struggling to find the middle ground again myself.  However, I don’t think it wouldn’t hurt to move this discussion out of the realm of  social media and talk about the facts face to face, just like we did in the past.  It seems like we accomplished a lot more back then, doesn’t it?

EDIT 20-March-2013:

As I was reading the news today, this story about an app to map out “gun friendly” businesses has begun.  Though the developer stated that the goal was not to push any sort of agenda, really what it is doing is furthering the polarizing rhetoric into two distinct camps.  Now, instead of rhetoric, we could start seeing economic consequences against certain businesses.   Great… :-\

Take a look at the story below:



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