The Young and The Feckless: Bursting Bubbles

J. Maureen Henderson
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It was oddly apropos to be mulling over the idea of social bubbles over bubble tea. Totally unplanned, though (as was the choking on a tapioca pearl). A friend and I were discussing the need to stop accepting online culture as the status quo. It's exclusive and exclusionary, with its own language, its own jargon and touchstones and for all of its ubiquity, the culture of the internet isn't universal*, not even amongst our generation. My brother-in-law doesn't have a Facebook account, my former coworkers had no idea what LinkedIn was, people who aren't using it don't give a flying...fig about Twitter and on and on. But if you're immersed in internet culture, it seems like the norm. Everyone blogs! Or comments on message boards. Or knows what a lolcat is, etc. It's not the norm, though. It's a bubble. And given that the topic recently came up again in an online (har, har, har) discussion wherein the majority sided in favor of the supportive power of surrounding oneself with like-minded folks for the sake of encouragement and motivation, I thought I should finally get around to digging out my hatpin and getting to work on breaking down (bursting if you're the punny sort) the idea of the bubble.

Photo by rksura (Pentax Man)

We all live in bubbles. Although they might reflect class, privilege, sexual/gender and racial divides, as a concept, they also transcend them. Bubbles writ large are universal, even as the individual ones serve to insulate us from others. We construct them from our lived experience, the norms of our social group, our relationships with institutions, the way in which we interact with the broader society and it in turn interacts with, evaluates and classifies us. It's only natural, really; you know what you live and who surrounds you–whether that's fellow grad students, engineers, artists, eco-activists or drug dealers, Oxford, Soho or a corner in West Baltimore. Bubbles are an unconscious intellectual self-preservation technique, a means of warding off a tidal wave of cognitive dissonance. Much easier to simply tacitly accept our experience as more or less representative of capital R reality than to acknowledge that there are billions upon billions of people out there whose lives bear no resemblance to our own and who are equally convinced of the universality of their insider shorthand. It's not even a matter of the simplistic, "We're right, they're wrong," in many cases, but a more nuanced and genuine naivete that the assumptions and premises on which we base our world view are understood by the masses.

Everyone is on the same page, even if we disagree over interpretations of the words printed on it, right? Except that that isn't true. This person can't read. That person doesn't have a book. That guy over there will deny that there even is a book, etc, etc. And it's humbling to realize that not everyone cares about what you care about, that the issues and causes and ideas that fill you with passion or outrage or righteousness aren't even a blip on others' radars (this is how student journalism broke my heart–ask me about the time I fell in love with freedom of the press and alienated my entire campus in the process). We take this indifference to heart. If what you care about so deeply (Space exploration! Roman architecture! Animal rights!) doesn't matter, does that mean you don't matter, either? Ouch. Just ouch.

In a forum such as Bitch, this might read as preaching to the choir (or maybe not, it would be rather ironic of me to assume that), but it's approaching the end of my tenure here and I tend to get a little maudlin around closing time. Besides, sometimes, we all need a wake-up call, me most certainly included. We need to brush up against the truth that, for better or worse, our reality is not necessarily replicable, nor is it a solid basis for extrapolation and to acknowledge our part in creating and empowering a self-reinforcing space in which we surround ourselves with the voices and perspectives and experiences that are most likely to keep order and harmony in place and cognitive dissonance at bay. And, of course, it's much easier to do this from a place of privilege, to acknowledge your privilege and your insularity and work to sensitize yourself (although, not in a "I'm not a ____, I have _____ friends!" way, obviously) than it is to stand in a place of disadvantage and lack of privilege and imagine another achievable, well-resourced context for yourself (which is why I get into fights with folks who talk about scholarship programs for marginalized youth as some sort of panacea when it comes to educational attainment). It's the difference between the bubble as a protective force field and the bubble as a claustrophobic enclosure.

Your world is not a proxy for or a microcosm of the world. And if you have the capacity and means to create it in the image of your choosing and to populate it as you see fit, you owe to yourself (for the sake of intellectual honesty and not appearing to be a sociological ostrich if nothing else) and those on the outside to acknowledge it for the bubble it is.

*somewhat of an understatement from the person who once referred to social media as an intellectual circle jerk of epic proportions.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

bubble not so licious

Very true. The problem with internet culture and popular/mainstream culture in general is there seems to be this assumption that "this is the way we do things now" and it's imperative to get with the program and let go of that dusty old way of doing things you had before. Like we have no choice whether or not to participate this way-- if we want to participate at all, we're supposed to do it online (or listen to music using an iPod etc etc). The idea of one unified culture sounds idealistic, but as you point out, the net culture often serves to atomize us still further. Although now we can live in a greater number of different bubbles, they are still bubbles!

More evidence and less indignation needed

This piece raises some interesting points, but your tone, approach, and lack of supporting material suggest that you are more interested in polemics than in trying to actually understand what is happening.

Your point about the bubble is well-taken. Or, it would be if we could be certain that such a bubble exists in a meaningful way, or that the notion that Internet culture is the status quo is pervasive. It seems to me that those who are most engaged with communities facilitated by these tools also tend to be highly engaged with their real-world communities. Addressing your bubble-dwellers, you assert that "Your world is not a proxy or a microcosm for the world". I think that most individuals recognize this, though some undoubtedly ignore it because it is in their interest to do so. They are engaging with these media forms not to better understand 'the' world, but to construct 'their' worldviews, which help them to navigate 'the' world. Again, I think that it is not so cut and dried. If these bubbles exist, they are surely not as impermeable as you seem to believe.

In the end, it all comes back to your central conceit. A bubble is clear - those inside can see beyond, even if they may not always choose to look that way. If they do not, it is likely because they gain strength and security from these self-constructed publics created out of a mix of affinity, interest, and geography. This is surely no different from the way that people have used various media forms since the dawn of the mass media era. If the bubble exists, it is strategic; it would have been of more use to demonstrate that this bubble exists and then to address the dynamic surrounding the bubble instead of merely decrying its existence, which, incidentally, hasn't even been proven.

More evidence


I'm a bit confused here as to what your expectations are of Maureen's post. Are you asking that she *prove* that we exist in bubbles formed by our lived experiences? I hardly think proof of that fact is necessary, nor is it even possible.

Also, I think Maureen most certainly does "address the dynamic surrounding the bubble" in this piece. In fact, that is what I took to be her entire point.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

Re: More evidence and less indignation needed

Hi Louise,

I was using internet culture as a lead-in example, but the idea of media-based bubbles isn't really the central theme of this piece and I don't intend to single out those who are highly engaged in social media as being more bubble-bound than the population at large (although I have previously written about the culture of social media in other forums in a more substantive context). Rather, I'm speaking of bubbles as encompassing all of the aspects of one's social and personal context (as per the examples in the second paragraph), of which media participation is but one aspect and rather apropos as a handy initial example (given that I'm posting this and you're reading it online and not carved into the wall of a cave).

"A bubble is clear - those inside can see beyond, even if they may not always choose to look that way. If they do not, it is likely because they gain strength and security from these self-constructed publics created out of a mix of affinity, interest, and geography. "

With this quote, you've summed up more of the thesis of the piece. Although, I would disagree that people can see beyond it, at least if they don't initially recognize the aspects of their life that are confined to bubbles (I could have said silos if A) I didn't hate that overused term and B) I had the forethought to imagine that someone would throw the transparent thing back at me). And for many people, that recognition just isn't there. As I said, for a segment of Bitch's readership, this might be preaching to the choir, but I think the sermon still has legs.


Thanks for writing about this Maureen. I've taken a few courses on new media in the past couple months at school, and it's strange how being immersed in the same bubbles really does create a blinder effect. Reading about the digital divide, and recognizing that our entire class had been taking for granted so much, even that we could use the same <i>language</i> about the Internet and social media, was eye-opening. I think in discussions of privilege, the economic and social aspects of digital access and understanding isn't brought up as much as other conversations (Although the <a href="/post/the-transcontinental-disability-choir-how-to-make-your-blog-accessible-in-five-not-very-complic">Transcontinental Disability Choir</a>, and <a href="">FWD</a>, continue to do a great job of talking about ways to make blogs more accessible for people with disabilities).

Sorry to see you leaving! Your posts have always been so great and thought-provoking.

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