Racism in America. It is a topic about which there is, seemingly, never-ending fascination, discussion and opinion. But when one adds to that a provocative cocktail mix of politics over technology and stirs; what bubbles up is a powerful and frothy concoction of social discussion. Such is the case regarding a recently released Harvard study by Ph.D. candidate Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. The provocative study utilized the search giant Google to analyze how the usage of racial epithets affected the 2008 presidential race. Stephens-Davidowitz’s findings concluded that “prejudice cost President Barack Obama between 3.1 percentage points and 5 percentage points of the national popular vote,” even though he won the presidency over Senator John McCain.
From the findings, one might be led to believe that the percentage of voters whose decisions were influenced by race may deeply affect Obama’s fight to stay in office for a second term. But what the study, though compelling, does not answer for us is what is this new phenomenon of “comment culture,” what is behind the behavior of those who participate, and how can we use such an arena to not only help us understand ourselves and others better but possibly predict future behavior by analyzing digital comments in real-time. These are some of the most important questions we can ask ourselves today.
Many people and news sites have previously held little regard for the comment section. In fact a popular media news/gossip site has announced that it will soon disable its comment section in favor of allowing just a hand-picked, select few to comment on posts. Such an approach would seem to be indicative of 20th Century thinking for what we are witnessing is the rise of the individual. Suppress it if you try, but it will just appear in an another format.
I began to understand this as I researched my book Rise of the SmartPower Class: navigating the new digital, leaderful era. I re-defined the little-used international government relations term of smart power to now mean a specific and growing tribe of young neo-humans who are are self-determinant, socially conscious and use tech extensions to explore and express the creation of a truly new socio-political power dynamic. And I decided to look first at the digital comment section in order to research my hypotheses.
While looking at the comments and interviewing various experts in social behavior, I particularly learned that the new phenomenon of “dis-inhibition” is exhibited over and over again in the digital arena. Dis-inhibition is the apparent reduction in concern for others. When we exhibit this style of behavior, we hide behind perceived anonymity and are not concerned about the judgment of others at that point. It’s important to note, however, that dis-inhibition can make for a very pure transfer of thought or simply exhibit the display of a virtual trying-on of identity.
The behavior is fascinating to track because particularly in the case of the Harvard study as well as my own within my book, we understand that we are in no way comfortably seated at a post-racial America table at all, but rather an America which is simply in the midst of examining race from a digi-socio perspective. But naturally not only race, but other key categories can and should observed.