The Seventh Person

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According to philosopher William James, “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.” This elegantly describes the nature of our relationships with others. Through our biases and subjectivities, we create views of the world that may not actually exist. These become even more difficult to untangle when social media is added to the mix.

In your non-digital life, your environment is, to some extent, filtered by your opinions, but not entirely. Your real-life friends may share similar views with you, but you can’t block your neighbors just because you disagree with their lawn signs. Social media creates its own layer of filters, a seventh player in the dance of communication. It filters not only by the preexisting conditions of who can afford wifi and computers, but also by what audience is drawn to each website, what the website itself filters from the audience’s contributions, and what individuals choose to see from those items. You can easily avoid controversy in opinions and find a network of people who will rarely disagree with you, and you can even do it unintentionally.

You are affected by the media you consume. While you might not necessarily conform your opinions to them, the very act of consuming media changes your perceptions. For example, as Ian Danskin says in his video essay, “A Single Study in Germany,” consuming violent media does not necessarily make the consumers more violent, but makes them believe there to be more violence in the world than there may actually be. While this may lead some people to become more violent, it leads others to become more fearful or more tolerant of the perceived violence.

Similarly, seeing only media with which you agree causes you to believe that the world is similar to your opinions, which may make you disassociate from opposition or may drag you into a false reality with no one to tell you otherwise. Even more damaging is when you apply filtering to your own output. The profile, an essential part of most social media websites, invites you to filter your identity to the extent that you may limit yourself to showing only your very best aspects or adopting a completely different persona. Any conversation on Facebook or other social media is restricted by the filters people use.

Of course, filtering conversations is not exclusive to the digital world; real-life filters exist within social norms such as returning a compliment or not discussing money. But in the digital world, when it is socially acceptable to “walk out on” a conversation abruptly, when you don’t have to reveal emotions through countenance, tone, or body language, and when the only thing you exchange is heavily edited and filtered text, the true meaning is necessarily going to become obscured.

At the same time, it’s easy to see why digital media have become the preferred media for social interaction – they feel safe. We choose filters over emotion because emotions are frightening. They’re fragile and shifting and embarrassing. But when we cut out emotion, our interactions lose much of their meaning. We feel like our interactions on social media mean something because it’s easy to forget that everyone else is filtering as much as we are. But when we escape those filters, when we escape the seventh person and its false security, then we can perceive the real world. Then we can truly be Friends of Truth.  ~~~

Desmond Kamas is a senior at Homestead High School, and works in the school’s journalism department. He became a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PYM) this past August.