Does the web unite or divide?The dream of Sir Tim Berners-Lee is to have a World Wide Web that is “free and open” and which extends its “benefits to all people on the planet”. It is a dream which means everyone benefits from being connected, learning from each other and sharing in that new-found knowledge. A natural extension of such a dream is that we all live in closer harmony as we understand more about each other. Indeed, that is often touted as one of the benefits of social networks and the wider web. But new research suggests this might be a forlorn hope.

It seems the Internet could be driving us further apart, or at least not bringing about the social change we think it is. The Arab Spring is a good example. Apparently it is the Internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter which have enabled oppressed people to rise up against their rulers. True, that may be the case – but the chances are those oppressed people always knew they were oppressed. And the oppressors still think they should be. In other words, the two opposing viewpoints have always existed and still do – the Internet has not changed the views, just enabled one to become more powerful than the other.

If you are a football fan you no-doubt love your team and simply detest that “local Derby” opposition. It has always been the way ever since your club was founded probably. Having fan-based web sites, seeing all those Tweets from each other has done nothing to bring together old rivalries and for the likes of Manchester City fans to say that those folks from Old Trafford are actually a really nice bunch of people. The divisions are the same as always, in spite of the increased sharing of news, views and information via the Internet.

So the question which needs to be asked is whether or not the Internet divides or unites? New research suggests it is increasing division, rather then reducing tensions. Indeed, this study of Twitter suggests that divisions are being emphasised, rather than eroded. That’s because it seems we tend to follow those people whose views we agree with. We then see more of those viewpoints, which helps underscore that our view is the correct one. Twitter following is “clustered” – we surround ourselves with the people who share our own views and prejudices, thereby confirming our own position on things. We tend not to see the opposing views and learn from them.

For anyone running an online business this has a significant impact. If people think your customer service is rubbish they will follow people, connect with individuals and read more about that notion. All this does is simply confirm they were right all along and that your business sucks. You can, of course, put out loads of examples of people who are really happy with what you do, you can try and demonstrate you really are fantastic, but the people who are surrounded by the “rubbish” position are unlikely to hear.

Similarly, if your competitors are busy using social media to get clusters of potential customers who all think that they products and services are brilliant, they’ll never really hear that your alternatives are much better. If your competition has loads of adoring fans, breaking into that cluster is nigh-on impossible.

So, what can you do? Firstly, make sure you have loads of adoring fans by creating first-rate products and services. Secondly, avoid negative clusters surrounding your business by ensuring that everything you do and your customer service is simple exemplary. In other words, even though it appears you cannot unite people with differing viewpoints after all, you can ensure that everyone shares the same view by establishing a business and products and services which are top notch. Your online success is not really down to how well you use Google, how well you create SEO tricks, but largely down to how well you run your business as a whole. Concentrate on that and the online success will follow.

Call Graham Jones Graham Jones, Internet Psychologist

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