The Web of ‘Bikeshedding’ and Social Media Polarization

November 28, 2022

~Submitted by Doug Muder

Recently, I’ve been learning some unfortunate truths both about democracy and myself.

When I moved to Bedford a few years ago, I had no experience with the hands-on style of democracy we practice here. I had voted in other towns, and had even done some low-level work on political campaigns, but I had never been part of a deliberative decision-making body such as Town Meeting. I didn’t speak in my first few meetings, but just knowing that I could was exhilarating. If I simply said, “Hold,” a town official would have to explain to me why the police needed new cars or some school should replace its boiler. Other citizens asked such questions, so presumably I could, too.

It took a couple of years for me to start noticing some of the oddities of the process. In 2020, at the meeting we held on the football field because of the pandemic, I puzzled over how we budgeted our time. A multi-million-dollar renovation of the police station got approved with barely any discussion, but we spent what seemed like forever debating whether Columbus Day should become Indigenous People’s Day on the town calendar. 

I had feelings about that issue — I was for the change — and might have gone to a microphone myself if other people weren’t already making my points. But at the same time, I had to laugh at myself. I had seldom noticed the town calendar, so the name it assigned to the October holiday seemed unlikely to have any practical effect on my life. Why was that the issue that tempted me to speak up?

It turns out that this pattern is so widespread that it has a name. Back in 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson (the man who noticed that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,”) observed: “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” He illustrated his “Law of Triviality” by imagining a committee tasked with approving the designs of both a nuclear power plant and a small bicycle shed. The bulk of their meeting, Parkinson predicted, would be spent debating the bicycle shed because everyone would understand that issue well enough to have an opinion. 

His example has since become paradigmic, so the practice has become known as “bikeshedding.” 

This fall, in the discussion leading up to the vote on the bicycle trail, my participation illustrated both bikeshedding and another unfortunate phenomenon: social media polarization.

Once again, I had an opinion: I was for extending the Minuteman Trail, though I suspect I would have behaved similarly had I been against it. This time I knew about the controversy well before Town Meeting, and read the social-media debates about it religiously, occasionally casting my own barbs into the fracas. Thinking about how to support one side of the argument and refute the other began to take up an inordinate amount of my brain’s spare cycles.

But I was taken aback a week or so before the meeting when a disinterested friend observed that (however the vote came out), it would make little difference in the lives of all but a handful of Bedfordites. He didn’t need to point out that I was not one of them.

So, the Law of Triviality had nailed me again. But it was even worse this time for reasons Parkinson couldn’t have foreseen in the 1950s. One way or another, face-to-face meetings always end. You have your say or you don’t, and then (in at most a few hours) it’s over. But social-media debates are potentially 24/7 activities. If you wake up at 3 a.m. knowing what you should have said to someone, you can still fire up the computer and say it. And once you have done so, you are open to a counter-attack, which might appear at any moment. And so, a simple two-line comment sometimes created a cloud of tension that would hang over me all day.

Worse, I began to recognize the names of other commenters whom I had never met in person, and to classify them as friends or enemies. The mere sight of a name on a screen could raise my hackles, and I began to dread the inevitable day when I might discover that one of my social-media “enemies” was in line with me at Whole Foods. 

After the craziness of all this was pointed out to me, I did a little more research. This phenomenon is also well known, though I don’t think it has a catchy name yet. 

Last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Petter Törnberg published a study of social media’s impact on polarization. He began his study believing the problem was the echo-chamber effect: People select social-media communities that agree with them, and so become ever more extreme in their views. But in fact, he found something different: Partisan identities harden not from agreement, but from conflict. 

In other words, what cemented my self-identification as a pro-bike-trail warrior was that I argued with anti-bike-trail warriors who presumably were also hardening. Törnberg invoked the image of the island in The Lord of the Flies, and said that social media “leads to a form of politics that is based on cycles of conflict between two warring tribes.”

At the recent Town Meeting, I was one of nearly 1,200 Bedford citizens who showed up not to discuss the education of our children or some sweeping plan to shape the town’s future, but whether or not to pave a trail. During the lengthy debate (which could have gone on much longer had the moderator not intervened), emotions sometimes ran high. Blessedly, there was no hint of violence, but the “two warring tribes” frame did, at times, seem to fit. 

If that’s not going to be a trend, I think we’re going to need to become more conscious about how we conduct our politics, especially on social media. Going forward, I hope to spend less time debating our trails and more time walking and biking on them. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Editor’s Note: Doug Muder serves on the Board of Directors of The Bedford Citizen but is speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the Board or The Bedford Citizen.

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Tim Bennett
December 3, 2022 12:34 am

I think we need more polarization. I no longer get the rush of adrenaline or the thrill of being alive now that the Citizen has removed up and down votes.

Tanya B. Gailus
November 30, 2022 8:37 am

In any public policy issue where there is strong disagreement, it is essential that due process be immaculately implemented. When government bodies show heavy bias and inadequate transparency, people get upset. Journalists rarely focus on this more fundamental problem, which fuels polarity.

Elena Zorn
November 29, 2022 9:57 pm

Really appreciate your nuanced and refreshingly honest perspective on this Doug.

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