Without a way to make regular, positive deposits in social relationships that bridge political lines, every civic debate is a withdrawal without social reserves, leaving people perpetually overdrawn.
Some research supports the idea that frequent and meaningful interactions between diverse Facebook users can promote the flow of new ideas across otherwise unconnected groups. Jonny Thaw, a spokesperson for the company, pointed out a 2014 study that looked at how the platform creates the “bridging social capital” described by Putnam. The study, which was conducted by researchers unaffiliated with Facebook, found that “weaker ties” in someone’s network (like a friend of a friend, or someone with whom you would not have other offline connections) offered the platform’s users the most potential for users to expand their worldview, because these connections opened the door to new information and diverse perspectives.
More importantly, however, was that the users who benefited the most from their weak social ties—in terms of expanding their outlook—were those who actively engaged in what the study’s authors call “Facebook Relationship Maintenance Behaviors,” like “responding to questions, congratulating or sympathizing with others, and noting the passing of a meaningful day.”
In other words, simply being connected to Facebook users from different backgrounds isn’t enough to make people open to new perspectives and ideas; users need to actively make deposits in each other’s social bank accounts in order to truly benefit from those diverse connections. The study notes that facilitating bridging among its users “may lie in technical features of the site that lower the cost of maintaining and communicating with a larger network of weak ties.”
This study points to some creative ways that Facebook can promote political bridging among its users—and develop some WD-40 against threats to democracy in the process. Let’s say that Facebook created a new feature called “Friend Swap” for users interested in creating connections with people outside of their political bubble. The company could use its powerful algorithms to match users with someone who, based on their individual preferences and posts, they disagree with politically, but have some things in common with personally. What’s important is that the users don’t engage over political issues, at least until they’ve had time to build some social trust. If you’re a liberal, you might not be so open to being thrown whole-hog into a conservative stranger’s feed and reading their posts from Fox News. But you may find some common ground around, say, rooting for the same sports team, or shared musical tastes or experiences, like being a veteran.
A feature like Friend Swap would selectively share only the posts of each user’s feed in an area they have in common with their political counterpart, and allow them to interact on that topic. After a trial period, the “swapped” posts might include ones on another common interest, and so on, until the users elect, if they eventually choose, to actually be “friends.” By creating connections around common interests or experiences, users would make deposits in each other’s social bank accounts over time. If they do become full-on friends, they would be more likely, at least in theory, to be open to a dialogue on differing viewpoints on political issues from someone they’ve come to trust based on bonding in other areas. Hopefully, at the very least, they could agree to disagree while maintaining their connection, which is still a win in today’s climate.