If the internet is as least partially to blame for the degree of political division between Americans now—with the filter bubble of social media screening out opposing viewpoints via algorithm, and amplifying existing beliefs—maybe it makes sense that the solution might be offline.
One new project aims to reconnect Americans the old-fashioned way—as pen pals. Pens Plus Pals, a pen pal matching service, is linking conservatives and liberals in an attempt to build understanding through its Red Plus Blue project. Another project, called Hi From The Other Side, matches people for face-to-face conversations, Skype chats, or phone calls.
"These are no-tech, one-to-one correspondence relationships," says Kate Dobie, founder of the Brooklyn-based Pens Plus Pals. "You're doing this with pen and paper, because I truly believe people do think differently, and they behave differently, when they have to really thoughtfully compose."
When people are willing to have in-person conversations, Hi From The Other Side matches them by zip code; for others, it recommends video calls rather the phone, so people can see each other as they talk.
"I think part of the issue is that there's a lot of demonizing of the other side," says founder Henry Tsai, a Harvard Business School student, who launched the site with the help of Yasyf Mohamedali, a computer science student at MIT. "I think the solution to that is to try to increase human connection. In that sense, something face-to-face feels ideal."
The Red Plus Blue project, by contrast, attempts to link people from different parts of the country, or rural areas and urban areas.
"I think if we're creating content between two people who would not in their day-to-day interact or cross paths, that would already be a pretty extraordinary step in the right direction," says Dobie. "And it's probably what a lot of those online platforms that we're talking about are lacking—that ability to remove conscious or unconscious biases in the way that you're cultivating your networks."
While the site doesn't suggest what letter writers should cover, Hi From The Other Side provides a conversation guide that begins with a few nonpolitical questions about childhood and family.
"I developed it with the input of conflict negotiators and facilitators of difficult conversations," says Tsai. "I just want to be deliberate in helping people have this conversation that lets people see each other as human beings first before talking about all the really divisive things that we've seen in the last 18 months."
In both cases, the goal is not to attempt to change someone else's mind, but to listen and better understand their point of view. As Eli Parisier wrote in The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, that perspective is necessary for democracy to succeed.
Ultimately, democracy works only if we citizens are capable of thinking beyond our narrow self-interest. But to do so, we need a shared view of the world we cohabit. We need to come into contact with other people’s lives and needs and desires. The filter bubble pushes us in the opposite direction—it creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists.