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Are You Living in a Social Bubble?

There has been a lot of talk lately about how so many people live in some type of social bubble. Have you heard of any of these before?

  • Liberal bubbles
  • Elitist bubbles
  • Rural white bubbles
  • Social media filter bubbles

It can be a life changing realization once you start noticing and looking for the types of bubbles that surround and filter your every day life. They aren't always obvious or easy to recognize. Learning to recognize them can take time.

One way we learn is from other people's stories of their experiences, even if they are stories from movies. Watching the 2001 movie Bubble Boy can show you a very exaggerated view of what life is like in a bubble, a real physical bubble. Perhaps it is a bit extreme, but satire comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes satire is shaped like a bubble.

social bubble boy

Bubble Boy was a fun, sort of campy movie starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal, who played a teen boy named Jimmy, who lived (quite literally) inside a big bubble. You see, when Jimmy was a baby, doctors discovered that he didn’t have an immune system- which meant his body couldn’t protect him from or fight off germs. So, the solution was to encase him in a room-sized dome that offered him protection from the outside world. And this is where he lived his life. As you can imagine, he lived his life mostly in isolation. His main sources of companionship were his mother and father. He never got to experience anything new - unless his parents introduced him to it. As a result, his worldview and experiences were very limited.

Then along came Chloe - who changed his life. Jimmy fell in love and (as you can expect) chased after the girl of his dreams. He traded in his large room-sized bubble for a smaller, portable version and ventured out into the world for the first time. He meets all kinds of interesting characters, makes friends, and has all kinds of life-changing experiences - including marrying Chloe. In the end, he learns that he doesn’t even need his bubble. He’d actually developed an immune system at 4, but his fearful and over-protective mother wanted to keep him safe so much, she cut him off from the rest of the world around him. Although she knew that the world had some good things to offer, she felt that Jimmy would be safe from all the not-so-good things if she could keep him in his bubble.

While far from being a commentary on society at large, there is something about Bubble Boy that tells a universal truth:

Living in bubbles prevents you from fully engaging with the world.

And the thing is, we ALL live in a bubble. Every single one of us.

While Jimmy’s bubble is an obvious one to everyone around him, our bubbles tend to be a bit more subtle. In fact, many of us don’t realize (or acknowledge) that we live in a bubble. The thing, though, is that living in bubbles is really the natural state of being for humans. We are attracted to things that are familiar and comforting. As the saying goes “Birds of a feather flock together”.

In fact, sociologists have a term for it, homophily, which is a theory in sociology that people tend to form connections with others who are similar to them in characteristics such as socioeconomic status, values, beliefs, or attitudes.

But is that the way things SHOULD be?

Look at Jimmy, for example.

He was comfortable living in his bubble. He had two people who loved him, a roof over his head, and food in his belly. He had his basic needs met.

But what he lacked was room to grow and opportunities to expand his worldview. That’s what living in bubbles does: They keep us comfortable, but they can also keep us (in varying degrees) limited, stagnant, and complacent. If you’re comfortable with where you are and the way things are, you don’t feel like anything needs to change. And if there is one thing that is clear about our society and our world, it is that change needs to happen. We live in a society that is rampant with social problems- poverty-shaming, racism, prejudice, homophobia, hate crimes, fat-shaming, skinny-shaming, ableism. The list goes on and on.

Social bubbles are part of human culture

Our society won’t change as long as we all cling to our social bubbles.

Over the past few years, especially around the time of the past presidential election, we got a really good look at our social bubbles. ESPECIALLY if you spent much time engaging on social media.

Facebook has its algorithm set up to show you only the news that it thinks you want to see. Based on your activity, your selected affiliation preferences, and network (i.e. your friends and THEIR activity/affiliations), Facebook filters what you see. In other words, it creates a nice, safe echo chamber for you to exist in while you’re browsing for news and entertainment.

But once you ventured into the comments section of these posts, all bets were off! Suddenly, we were all out there, shouting at each other from inside our own bubbles.

  • Liberal vs Conservative political bubbles.
  • White vs People of Color racial bubbles
  • Poor vs Elitist economic bubbles
  • Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice ethical bubbles

For some, this bubble war was something strange and frightening. Just like when Jimmy went outside of his house for the first time to follow after Chloe and experienced things like making friends with drastically different views and lifestyles, we’d never seen anything like it because we tend to stay comfortable inside our own bubbles. Not only that - we also generally hang out with people who have bubbles similar to ours. They may not have all of the same bubbles - they might be a different race, in a different age group, or have different educational levels - but their bubble is close enough to ours to make hanging out with them comfortable.

So, when we are confronted by intense conversations with people whose bubbles look very dissimilar from our own, it can be disruptive. Scary, even. It can cause us to hold on to our homophilic roots, taking on an “us versus them” mentality. It can also trigger our primal instinct of “fight or flight”. On social media, that fight or flight plays out by you either declining to engage in conversations with people outside your “acceptable bubble” range OR engaging them head-on. I’m sure we can all recall situations on both ends - that we watched play out and that we were in the thick of.

people in a bubble

What if we popped our bubbles?

What if, instead of clinging to sameness and comfort, we actively sought out newness and change?

What if we invited opportunities to engage in an open, healthy dialogue with people who have different life experiences, value systems, beliefs, and attitudes? Not in an effort to argue or persuade - but in an effort to truly get to know and understand each other.

I think that is where society gets it wrong.

Life doesn’t have to be about getting people who are different from you to change their minds or become more like you.

We don’t need to try to pull people into our bubbles. We just need to start by trying to understand each other’s bubbles. Because understanding someone’s bubble is part of understanding their worldview. And when you understand their worldview, you begin to understand them. And, often, when you understand someone (and I mean REALLY understand them), you realize that you have more in common with them than you thought.

If more people do this, then maybe - just maybe - we will begin to see the natural breakdown of our collective social bubbles. Perhaps, just like Jimmy, we will eventually realize that our bubbles (the ones that subconsciously protect ourselves and our ideologies) are not only unnecessary, but they are getting in the way of us REALLY experiencing the world and all of its extraordinary inhabitants.

What can we do to filter the noise?

You don’t have to go as far as Jimmy did, building a new bubble to explore the world and chase after Chloe on an adventure to Niagara Falls. You can, however, take simple steps to understand your bubble and get to know other bubbles around you.

For example, take some time to do research on cultural events in your area. Are there any festivals you could attend to experience food, music, dancing, art, and entertainment from other cultures? I find that these things are ones we can all enjoy together.

What about restaurants in your area? Are there any that serve cuisine from regions of the world that you’ve never been able to visit? Peruvian food? Or Ethiopian cuisine? Make a visit and try some dishes you’ve never heard of before.

You could get a book written by someone from another part of the country (or even from some other part of the world) to learn about some experiences that are really outside your bubble.

Festivals and international cuisine a bit too adventurous right now? Start small with people already in your circle - friends and family. Try something new to get to understand the bubbles of your friends and family so you can understand how they ARE different from yours. One fun way to do this is to host a game night at your home and invite your family, friends, and neighbors. This gives you a safe and easy way to have some conversations.

Ask simple questions like “What was the last good book you read?”, “What’s the last movie you watched in theaters?”, “Who is your favorite musical artist?”, and “What’s your favorite family tradition?”. You don’t have to meet someone from a different country to expand your bubble a bit. Sometimes, just getting to know more about the people in your life is a great start!

social bubbles in the world

Break out of your own bubble

It can take courage to break out of a bubble.

Getting out of his safe sterile bubble worked out pretty well for Jimmy in the end; he won the heart of Chloe and they lived happily ever after.

The next time you are faced with a belief, attitude, or revelation that you can’t relate to, make an active effort to understand it. Ask questions. Listen. Have a GENUINE conversation built solely on a desire to learn more.

The more we learn about things we don’t understand, the more we eradicate the fear that subconsciously drives so many of us. And the more we get rid of fear and the bubbles it builds, the richer our lives can become.

When we make an active effort to no longer allow our bubbles to get in the way, I believe that many of the social problems that plague our world will slowly become less of an issue. When we understand, respect, and embrace our differences, it makes it that much easier for us to notice and embrace the many ways that we are also the same. We’ll begin to see beauty and friendships in places that we once only saw something strange, offensive, or threatening. But, to find that balance, we have to get to work.

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